The Bomb in the Body: a lesson on Subplots

Okay, raise your hand out there if you watch ER or Grey’s Anatomy.  It’s okay, no one can see you.  And, not like I’m raising MY hand or anything, but hypothetically, let’s just say that if you are familiar with these particular medical (and I’m using that term a bit freely) dramas, then you know that they are really big long soap operas.  Greys is, essentially, the on again, off again, hopefully on again  (not that I would know) romance of Dr. Derrick McDreamy and Dr. Meredith Grey.  Inside all this romance are the daily (read: episodic) events of a hospital in Seattle. 

What makes Grey’s kinda cute are the running monologues of the lead heroine, the thematic nuances she puts into the story, usually centered around the events of the episode, but also alluding to her current state of relationship with Derrick.  One could say that the episode theme relates to the overall story arc of the series.

Episodes in a show like this act as subplots to the main story.  They are by subplot definition:  Short, but concise stories that reveal theme, and, taken alone would stand on their own merit. 

Let’s take one of my favorites (er, I mean, one that I’ve heard about…oh, forget it, I’m a Grey’s addict.  I admit it). ..the Bomb in the Body episode. (Also had Kyle Friday Night Lights guy (formerly Early Edition) guest starring, and I just love him).  The subplot starts with the inciting incident:  fella comes in with a hole in his gut.  Paramedic is holding onto the bleeding inside his body.  Conflict:  If she takes her hand out, then he’ll bleed to death, so they have to take them up to surgery.  Further conflict:  Wife comes in and reveals that the man was playing with a bazooka – there is an unexploded bomb in his body.  More conflict: Paramedic freaks out, pulls her hand from his body, wherein Dr. Grey takes her place. 

Of course, she’s doomed, and the rest of the show is her wishing that she could turn back time and rethink where she is right now. 

Meanwhile, in the BIG plot, Derrick, the Dr. and she have had an affair, and she’s in love with him UNTIL just a few weeks prior his WIFE (and poor Meredith didn’t even know she existed until then) shows up.   Derrick wants a divorce…he thinks.  But, maybe not, so he decides to give his marriage another chance.  Meredith’s heart is broken.  She wishes she could turn back time and rethink her life.   See the parallel? 

Of course, they get the bomb out of the body, and sadly, as cute Kyle walks away with it, it blows up.  He’s vaporized.  And Meredith is left with blood all over her, a casualty of another person’s error in judgment.  Of course, the patient who wreaked all this havoc, lives. 

Again, see the parallel to the main story arc?

A great subplot is about mirroring the theme of the main plot. It can either enhance it – ie, show what could happen if one choice is made, or put it in relief – show what will happen if that choice isn’t made.  It can be a testing ground for “what if.” 

I’ve had a lot of fun with recent subplots —  my biggest being the subplot within a subplot I put into Taming Rafe – a love story written by one of the characters that reveals the feelings the character has for a woman he’s never declared his love to, written via the romance of the characters in HIS book, a book that the POV characters in Rafe all read. (Okay, did that make sense?  Basically, it’s a story within a story).  In Finding Stefanie, I used the young romance of a former gang-banger to reveal how a little faith in someone can change their entire life – and how the hero’s life might have be affected if he allows himself to have faith in Stefanie. 

As you’re developing your subplot, ask yourself – what lesson will the characters in my main plot learn?  Is there a smaller lesson, or a piece of that lesson I can illuminate through the subplot? 

Remember, also, a subplot has to have all the elements of a story:  Inciting incident, conflict, black moment, epiphany and a climatic ending.

And, here’s a hint – it needs to start at least three chapters in, and end at least three chapters before the main story ends.  And, to keep it flowing, I usually put in one subplot pov per every 4-5 main povs.  That way I keep the subplot flowing without overwhelming the main plot. 

Great subplot/layer examples!  Keep ‘em coming.  We’ll continue taking comments through the weekend. 

Rach and I are both out of town this weekend, so, if you have any subplot questions, hurl them at us in the comments (or Voices) and we’ll try and answer.   Have a GREAT Labor Day Weekend!





Layers verses Subplots – the truth exposed

One of my favorite teeny-bop movies is Chasing Liberty.  Aside from the theme of the story – trying to keep a teenage girl (incidentally the president’s daughter) from misbehaving (if you know what I mean), it’s a cute story about the dilemma of a secret service agent to not fall in love with his assignment. 

Embedded in this tale is another tale – the romance of two secret service agents tracking above mentioned duo.  Their story is what makes this movie such a delight – their banter, their eventual romance, their happy ending.  It’s this extra story in a story that that gives the movie the extra sparkle that takes it from teeny-bop to good-enough-for-grownups. 

 In short, the Subplot makes the movie. 

 This week we’re going to talk about Subplots – -how to use them, how to weave them in, how to make them powerful and add spice to the story. 

 But today, I want to define the difference between a subplot and a story layer. 

 A story layer is an element to the plot that adds depth and enhances the character struggle, and eventually his/her epiphany.  A layer is some fringe element that directly relates to the character growth, and thereby the plot of the story, but, if taken alone would be lacking a story arc and it’s own three act plot.  

For example, if you’ve read my book Happily Ever After, you know that Joe, our hero, has a brother, Gabe, who has Down Syndrome.  Joe is in town to reconnect with his brother – and part of the story is how they accomplish this.  But there is no black moment between them, no character arc for Gabe.  It’s just a layering tool used to reveal Joe’s insecurities, unforgiveness issues, and give Joe a glimpse at what unconditional love looks like.  And all these elements feed back into the main plot – Joe’s inability to commit to a relationship with Mona. 

 A subplot, however, is its own distinct story.  It has a dilemma, obstacles, a black moment, and lessons learned (and hopefully a happily ever after).  A subplot can mirror the main plot, and even intersect with it, but it has it’s own main characters, it’s own arc, and if pulled out of the story, could stand alone as a mini-story. 

 Subplots are often found in longer books, due to the extra word count needed to form a complete story.  Layers are found in shorter books and used to enhance the main plot. 

 Make sense? 

Rachel writes: Great definitions, Suz. Makes great sense. Remember, all stories need layers. How do you get those layers? Digging deep. Writing your protagonist bio, creating an elaborate back story, creating a history, surrounding them with family and friends. 

In Sweet Caroline, I added layers to her by creating a semi-disfunctional family. Her mother ran off, the dad was sad and lonely, the brother bitter. Caroline was the glue that held them together.

In Love Starts With Elle, I created a subplot. Julianne, Elle’s sister has an issue that Elle helps her work through. In those scenes, the “focus” is off of Elle, and on Julianne. However, we get to see Elle’s heart in the midst of it.

Come back tomorrow when we dissect the structure and timing of a Subplot in a main plot. 


But, to get our brains going – find two movies: one with a layer, one with a subplot, and post them in Comments.  We’ll pick one person from the Comments section this week to get their choice of Wiser than Serpents or Finding Stefanie (or Rachel’s Love Starts with Elle!) 


Also – Don’t forget to sign up for the My Book Therapy Pizza Party!  

Make ’em cry with a metaphor

So yesterday we talked about the three common layers of emotional writing – the Surface, Skin-Deep and the Touch the Heart layers.  This last layer is where a lot of authors stop.  They have connected with their readers’ hearts, made them feel what their characters feel and that’s their goal.  But there is another layer, one that goes even deeper, one that makes us connect with the character, an almost spiritual connection. 

 And that’s what I call soul-deep.  It’s the use of Metaphor to convey emotions.  It’s the heart of showing. 

 Let’s look at Dear Darla again. 

 She has a book.  A Fear of Flying book.  She takes it out.  Clutches it herself, and then almost frantically shoves it back into the bag.  Then, after wiping her hands on her pants, breathing out a few times, staring out the window, she grabs it again, and this time opens it, tearing off the highlighter top with her teeth and going to town, marking up the book, as if it holds the key to surviving the next two hours.  The book is hope and promise and victory and I saw in my mind’s eye a two year old clutching his blanket, trembling and alone in the middle of the night in his crib. 

 Don’t you feel sorry for her? 

 So, let’s write it in her pov. 


 She didn’t need the book.  Didn’t need…okay, maybe she’d just take it out and hold it.  She didn’t want it get lost, maybe left behind.  She pressed it to her chest, stared out the window at the airplanes, like birds – safer than cars, the book said – moving around the shiny tarmac.  Clear blue skies.  A perfect day for flying. 

   She put the book back in the bag.  Shoved it deep.  Zipped up the bag.  Really, it wasn’t like it was a security blanket, or that she was a toddler.  Across from her, a woman with a walkman looked away – Darla knew she’d been staring. 

    She blew out a breath.  Rubbed her greasy palms on her pants.  Maybe she should call her father – again.  A voice came over the loudspeaker.  She tried to listen, but lost the first half of the announcement.  What if it if was her flight, what if she was left –

     She unzipped the pack and wrestled out the book.  Opened it.  There – “Preboarding, what to expect at the gate.” 

      Had she read that chapter?  She pulled out the highlighter, held the cap in her mouth and began to underline.  Probably she’d just keep the book out. 


~ We never mention that she’s afraid.  But we see it in her greasy palms, and breathing – there’s the touch the heart layer, but most of all we get in her skin through the symbolism and action of needing the book like a security blanket.  In the end the fear wins. 

 ~ We don’t just feel her pain in our hearts, we’ve been there, wanting to defeat something, and not able to. We’ve connected with her on a spiritual level, one of deep understanding. Because we understand the metaphor. 

 ~ Gary Smalley calls it a “word picture” – and tells married couples to use it as they try and communicate.  When people can connect to a word picture, they can connect to the emotions we are trying to covey.  And when they connect, that’s what is going to glue your reader to the page. 

 So, your assignment over on Voices, if you choose to accept it, is to write a scene without naming the emotion, using metaphor – and then let your voices GUESS what emotion you’re portraying! 

 And, if you want MORE of this class, don’t stop by my Don’t Wear your Heart on your Sleeve  – Writing Emotions class at the ACFW conference in September! 


Rachel adds: Great imagery, Susie. And really, if you want to be honest, this is how to show and NOT tell. This technique has become convoluted in the writing world. It’s not avoiding words like, “angry” or “fear” or “laughed” but it’s about showing all of the emotions on the body, the characters reaction to the room, reaction to others, as well as the author working with pacing and timing.

I also love how Susie paid attention to this fellow passenger. This is how we improve our writing. If you see something that captures you, take time to write it down, or memorize it and write the scene later. We know we want to show the passenger is afraid, but we can come up short on those images and metaphors. The book, Overcoming Fear of Flying, provided more than we needed to understand this woman.


Next week well be talking about:  SUBPLOTS!  Have a great weekend!

Layers of Emotional Writing

Okay, so remember Darla from the plane yesterday?  (Like I’m ever going to forget her!)  ~  We’re going to talk about writing character emotions today, and the three main layers that authors use when writing them. 

 Feel free to refer back to Dear Darla during the examples.  (Or maybe she’s already firmly embedded in your mind)

 1.  The first layer of writing emotions is simply that surface emotion – the name of the emotion.  Darla turned me and said: “I’m a little nervous.”  She stated her emotion. 

 Examples of this first layer:  

 ~ She stood at the entrance to the gateway and fear gripped her. 

~ She could not watch the children in the playground without feeling sorrow. 

~ Never had she know such happiness as when she saw her son walk off the airplane.

 We use this layer/technique a lot for quick emotions, or perhaps an introductory statement to a paragraph about that emotion.  It’s a common technique – probably the most common and easy to write.  Most people can connect with these feelings and generally can relate to the character.  But does it prompt a visceral response?  Probably Not.  Because we’re just accessing that information level of the brain.  We’re agreeing with that emotion, but not necessarily feeling it. 

 So, let’s go to the next layer: 

 Poor Darla said, “I’m so nervous I can barely breathe.”  Yeah, that made everyone feel better.  But through that admission, she connected a little more deeply with us. 

 This layer is called: Just under the skin:  Naming the emotion and pairing it with a physical response. 

 Here’s some examples:

Fear clogged her throat. 

Dread prickled her skin.

Her heart twisted with sorrow.

 We understand what it might mean for fear to clog our throats.  Putting a physical response to the emotion helps a reader apply their own physical response to the situation. Yes, I’ve been so afraid that I can barely speak.  That’s what she must feel like.  We’re now connecting on an informational and physical level.

 But let’s go deeper: 

 Sweat dribbled down her brow.  She gripped the seats with whitened hands.  She practiced early labor breathing.  Even if I hadn’t heard her on the phone, seeing her actions, I would have gotten it.  I don’t need to know the emotion to know she was afraid. 

 The next layer is simply the physical response only.  I call it the “touching the heart” layer.  It’s where wow, we have so been there.  We see behavior, or physical action, and the physicality of it reminds us of when we were in their shoes. 

 Here’s some phrases we might use that are simply physical: 

 Her pulse ratcheted to high – (fear)

Her breath caught  (surprise)

She swallowed hard, her throat parched. (dread) 

Her skin prickled at his touch.  (creeped out)

Fire streaked through her, right to her toes.  (desire)

 We’re deeper into the character because we aren’t told what emotion to equate with the sense, but rather are left to experience the sense and apply our own experience and emotions to it.  We have to dig around our heart to decide what emotions that might be, and when we find it, we understand on that heart level what the character is going through.  You know I felt sorry for that woman when she began her early labor breathing. 

 This is where a lot of authors stop.  They have connected with their readers hearts, made them feel what their characters feel and that’s their goal.  But there is another layer, one that goes even deeper, one that makes us connect with the character, an almost spiritual connection. 

 And, we’ll talk about THAT layer…tomorrow! 

Rachel sez: Over and over I’m learning emotion is the factor in fiction that grips the reader. The story can be a little weak, or the writing slow, perhaps even clumsy, but readers gush about it, “I cried, I laughed.” The author did one thing well – emotional layering. 

Don’t be afraid to pause, close your eyes, see your character in peril or distress, then write what you see, how they move, fidget, react, whisper.

 Have a great day!