Plans within plans

One of my favorite authors is Frank Herbert with his Dune Series.  Now, I’ll admit that a primary reason is because I’m named after the Lady Jessica.  The concubine of Duke Leto Atreides, a Bene Gesserit who went against her orders to bear him a son instead of a daughter.  Her defiance set into a sequence of events that started the series.  Later, after the passing of Frank, his son released the previous books of the series to explain what went on before, but my love for the series began with the originals.

Padishah Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV, portrayed...
Padishah Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV, portrayed by José Ferrer in David Lynch’s Dune (1984). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have more than a dozen favorite parts of the first book, but one in particular is where Frank has the characters talk about plans within plans.  It’s a way to say that no really knows what the hell is going on.  The Emperor is planning one thing with the Baron Harkonnen and another thing with the Bene Gesserit, a third thing with Guild navigators (this is, of course, an extreme over simplification of the plot).  The more people involved in the plans, the more complicated it gets.  Often times it feels like a twisted cross-road direction sign saying go this way – no, wait, go that way.

A reason this is a favorite part of mine is because I found it to be a great explanation of story development.  It is, essentially, plans within plans or, to be more precise, plots within plots.  The technical term is subplots, but who wants to be technical???

I read an article today about this very topic titled: How to Build Subplots From Multiple Viewpoints at Writer’s Digest that will explain the work involved in creating subplots better than I could so I won’t bother.  Instead I’ll say go read it then come back.  Our lives are complicated, as it says in the article and I believe that novels/stories are the same way.  Short stories are exempt from this because it’s like taking a snap shot (which is probably why I have difficulty writing short stories – I like complication).

The article does suggest planning the subplots, which can work for most people I suppose, but it won’t work for me and to be truthful, I’m not sure that would be natural.  Complication in our lives is never by our own design.  As a kid, reading the very complicated life of Lady Jessica, I never pictured my decisions could lead to consequences beyond my control.  Granted, mine will never lead to such a grand adventure as hers did, but the point stands.  Characters in stories are like us, their lives are unpredictable, they feel out of control.  Our job as the writer is to show that and we do it with all the little plot within a plot.

They don’t know what is going on, as well as it should be, force them to ask: Huh?  Do I go this way, go that way, go no way?

The question then is this:  As a writer, how much should we know?  How much should we plan for the subplot?  My experience with multi-viewpoints has shown me very little, they tend to take care of themselves because they have their own problems and know how to get themselves from point A to point B with very little prompting on my own.  I have a Secret Service Agent who told me quite forcefully that he was going to be a subplot to my story because I needed a point of contact between the resistance and the White House…

What is a poor writer like me to say in the face of that except “okay?”

On the other hand, single viewpoint stories like Memory Lane is harder to throw in her secondary subplot.  It’s ultimately a story about self-discovery for Alex hidden in danger and intrigue so I have to interweave these two plot themes together.  Are they subplots or main plots (LOL, sorry, couldn’t resist)?  Are subplots only relegated to the multi-viewpoint story?

Hmm, so many questions – perhaps this is a question within a question.  At which point, can anyone give me an answer within an answer???



4 thoughts on “Plans within plans

  1. Yes… indeed – a question within a question! I believe that you are right in that the sub plots do take care of themselves and I think that most books/characters will tell you as you write, whether or not they demand to be complex. I am with you, I love the complex, I love throwing in the twists… the only problem is that I sometimes forget which bit goes with which when I am trying to make it all make sense at the end.

    I have no idea whether any of that makes any sense, but then I am a true pantser, in ever essence of the word, even when it comes to commenting on blogs! LOL. 🙂

    • I guess that is where planning comes in so that we know what goes where. Letting our characters get twisted is one thing, but as a writer we shouldn’t be as twisted in the plot as they are. 🙂

  2. I start out by figuring out what each character wants and each character’s primary method for getting what she or he wants. None of the characters want exactly the same thing as any of the others, but some goals are contradictory and some are complementary. Then I let them sort it out for themselves, more or less. I don’t think that most people ever start out with a complex plan, it’s more common to start with a simple plan and then it gets complicated in reaction to other people’s plans.

    An example I like to use is an expedition into the jungle to find a lost city. You might have one character who is a scholar and wants to find the city to study it, another one who is a treasure hunter who is looking for gold, another who wants the fame of being a daring explorer, and an adrenaline junky who is in it for the thrill of the danger. While all of them have the broad goal of “finding the lost city”, their individual goals are going to come into conflict upon occasion.

    To further complicate matters, suppose that one of them is secretly trying to sabotage the mission, perhaps because a rival group is threatening a family member. This adds the goal of “find the traitor” to most and “remain hidden” to one–goals that are unquestionably in conflict.

    At this point, I haven’t done any plotting as such–I don’t know what is going to happen in detail, even if the expedition is going to find the city or not. I’m not even sure there is a lost city–maybe it’s a just a legend. What I do have is characters who are going to drive the plot and sources of internal and external conflict to keep things interesting.

    I don’t start with a blueprint so much as a recipe, mix characters, add some spice, throw it in the oven on high heat, and see what comes crawling out.

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