Subplots: How Much Is Too Much?

Since I wrote “Plot and Subplots” about two weeks ago, I’ve been paying special attention to subplots and plotlines in the books I read.  One of the things I’ve been wondering about is how many is too many.

At the moment, I’m reading Breakout by Kate Messner.  Plots and subplots include:

  1. A prison break (that’s the main plot)
  2. Social justice/justice and what it is to be fair
  3. Racism
  4. Friendship
  5. School
  6. A time capsule
  7. And the power of poetry.

That’s seven and it might seem like a lot, especially in a middle grade novel but it works.  It is all tied together neatly and at no point so far am I wondering why?  Why on earth did she think that she had to throw that in too.

I just finished another novel and this time I’m not going to name it because . . . well, you’ll see.  The plots and subplots include:

  1. War
  2. Family and separation
  3. An incestuous relationship
  4. Step-parents
  5. A specific health issue
  6. Anti-immigrant

That’s six total and this book is young adult.  You might think that if Messner could pull off 7 in a middle grade novel that 5 would be easy peasy in YA but it didn’t work out that way.  Every time something new was brought forward I rolled my eyes.  “Seriously? This too?”  I expected to see the kitchen sink on the next page.

Why did it work in one but not the other?  I’m not sure.  I think that part of it may be that I like the main character in Messner’s book and was a lot less sympathetic with the character in the second.  But I don’t think that is the biggest part.  I think it is a matter of grounding your reader.

I knew when Messner’s book was taking place – now – and where – in a small town in upstate New York. I feel like you could plunk me down in the town and I’d recognize it.

While I would recognize the area that key elements of the story took place in the second book, I didn’t feel grounded.  When was it?  Maybe now.  Maybe 5 years from now but I’m not sure.  I know the country but that just wasn’t enough.  I think that not having a firm time element set me adrift and because of this I was a lot less tolerant of numerous plot lines.  Each one just felt like one more thing to keep track of.

The lesson?  Anchor your reader in place and time.  Do that and then you can begin to pull in various plot lines.  Readers are a lot more tolerant when they don’t feel like they’ve been set adrift.