subplot 1I’m planning my new novel (as much as a pantster can) and have been thinking a lot about subplots. I love dreaming them up – B stories, those side stories that add dimension and complexity to the main narrative. Take a suspense thriller for example. Our heroine Susan, is a teacher. An outbreak of bizarre behaviour among her high school students leads her to believe they are being mysteriously hypnotised. Solving the puzzle is the main plot. But perhaps Susan also has trouble at home, a rocky marriage she’s trying to save. We’ll see a different side of her in scenes where she fighting for her relationship, than we will when she’s being a super sleuth. Subplots allow writers to deepen characterisation.

subplot 3Used well, subplots also help emphasise theme. The theme may be finding one’s authentic self. In the main story, Susan’s exploration of hypnosis and the human psyche makes her question her mundane, unadventurous life. Is it fulfilling or has she settled?  In the subplot, Susan holds on to her husband, by pretending to be someone she’s not. At some point she realises she needs to let him go. The subplot illustrates theme from a different angle.

Subplot 2Subplots give readers variety – a rest from the main plot, especially if you’ve hit a slow patch. You can switch over to an interesting subplot and let the main story play out in the background for a bit. They can provide light relief, an opportunity for humour to be injected into a serious story. And they can be a lot of fun to write. Remember though, they should be tackled in the same way as your main plot with their own narrative arc. And they shouldn’t overwhelm the story. If a subplot takes over the main one, it’s trying to tell you something. Maybe that’s where the action really is?




Save the Cat!

Save the CatSave the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need (by the late Blake Snyder) is a simple, no-nonsense explanation of effective story structure. Ever since I attended Alexandra Sokoloff’s fabulous session at last year’s RWA Conference, I’ve been interested in how the movie world relates to novels. After reading Save the Cat! I’m more convinced than ever, that authors can learn a lot from screenwriters.



Blake SnyderLikeable protagonists, for example.This is where the title Save the Cat! comes in. Imagine a scene where the audience meets the hero of a movie for the first time. The hero does something nice—e.g. saving a cat—that makes the audience like him or her. It’s something very simple, that helps the audience invest themselves in the character and the story.

Similarly to Sokoloff, Snyder offers a sheet of necessary beats or movie plot points – essentially a blueprint for compelling screenplay structure. Making a story board with index cards is the next step. This approach is equally helpful for fiction, and particularly for popular fiction. Snyder breaks down narrative theory in a very straightforward way, and with a great sense of humor. He has a lot of tough things to say about elevator pitches and themes as well. Snyder says that if you can’t come up with a great single sentence log-line, you may not have a story.  And he says a movie’s thematic premise needs to be stated in the first five minutes. Yes, actually stated, in an offhand remark, or question that the main character doesn’t quite get yet. To do this, you need to know exactly what your story is about, right from the start. Honesty is the best policy perhaps, or Be careful what you wish for. Save the Cat 2Nailing theme and structure early on is great advice I think, for authors too.

As I work through my Currawong Creek edits, I’m keeping in mind all these screenwriting tricks. They’ll also guide the writing of my new book, helping to set the story on firm foundations.


A Sydney Smith Masterclass

sydney-smith_regularToday, Sydney Smith, author of The Lost Woman, visits Pilyara to talk about her love for plotting and structure. I attended one of Sydney’s masterclasses last year and cannot speak highly enough about her talents as a writing teacher. And now, it’s over to Sydney …

“Plotting and structure are two of my favourite aspects of narrative. I play plotting games with several of my writing friends, where we think up new and amusingly outlandish – or movingly dramatic – things for their characters to get up to. At the moment, I am writing a romantic comedy thriller called GUNS AND ANGELS, which arose out of one of these plotting games.

I have found over the years, both as a writer and as a reader, that certain things must be present if a plot is to involve the audience and create the forward momentum and dramatic highs that readers love. When a writer uses them, their story leaps off the page in a way it hadn’t before. It has a new energy, a new drive, a new depth. Writers feel it as we discuss these principles and how they relate to their particular story. I can see them feeling it – they write copious notes as we talk.

While I teach certain principles of plotting and structure, and give examples from the texts I set, my aim is always to show people how they relate to their own particular writing project. My approach is always hands-on. Theory is important, but theory only makes sense to me, and is most useful to the writer, when I show it in action in the writer’s own work.

Some writers come to me because they are stuck with their novel or memoir and don’t know how to unstick themselves. It is one of my most exhilarating tasks as a teacher to help them find ways to unstick themselves. This nearly always happens – either in class or in the one-on-one interview that is part of the package when people apply for one of my classes. The reason it nearly always happens is because the block the writer experiences has something to do with their plot and how character shapes plot. On the rare occasion that a writer can’t work through the block, it’s because the block lies somewhere outside the imagination. As long as the block lies within the imagination, it is related to plot or to character in their relationship to plot, and yields to the kind of attention the writer and I bring to it.

I am interested in good story. I accept writers of commercial and literary narrative in my classes because my focus is on good story – how to create it, how to maintain it. I can help people who have written a draft or two of their novel or memoir, and I can help people who have a few ideas about the story they want to write but haven’t put much on the page yet. The only requirement is The Lost Womanthat they have a fair amount of experience as a writer already. My classes are full-on.  Participants will benefit most when they have some writing experience under that belt. But since the criteria for this can vary from writer to writer, I put in place a selection process so that I can judge who will be able to make the most of my class.”

Thank you, Sydney. You are indeed a master plotter. I can’t wait for your next book! For those interested, Sydney’s next masterclass will be held in Melbourne 25th – 27th January. For more information you can contact her at