Sunday, November 18, 2012

The supporting cast

A while ago, I read a book (which I won't name) that had an extremely compelling central story line. But the author kept yanking us away from that story line, away from the main characters, to develop subplots for some extremely peripheral characters. Those subplots included barely-relevant family stuff and a cheesy, too-coincidental romance. Please, I wanted to beg the author. Please cut out all this froufrou stuff and take me back to the interesting part! I don't care if these side characters end up together. I feel like you're just stalling on the way to the main attraction.

Subplots and side characters can be fascinating. Usually I enjoy the time I spend with the supporting cast. So I've been trying to figure out why I didn't like it in this case. For one thing, it seemed to come at the expense of the main story line. There were important questions dangling, and instead of pursuing them, the author would pull back and spend all kinds of time in the side characters' backstories. In addition, the side characters' stories didn't really enhance the main theme. The romantic intrigue--which normally I'm a fan of--seemed tacked-on in this case, as if someone had told the author that it would ramp up the story to have this extra complication. The bottom line is that the subplots didn't feel essential or organic to the story.

In contrast, suspense-building, even through temporary shifts away from the main plot lines, was done much better in Sarah Darer Littman's Want to Go Private? In fact, Littman takes a huge risk when her story builds to a nail-biting plot point, and then the POV changes. But the suspense simply builds again, this time through viewpoints that add breadth to the story, and the questions that are raised in the book's middle section are still relevant to the main plot. We also begin to get some answers. And so, I would say that Littman succeeds in developing her supporting cast, which truly supports rather than distracts from the central story.

Perhaps we can't all aspire to a book like Louis Sachar's Holes or Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me, where every little detail proves essential to the plot. But our secondary characters and subplots still need to have significance, as they do in Want to Go Private?


  1. I think Rebecca Stead is remarkable. But don't ever doubt yourself.

    Spiders are back here. Playdate?

    1. Oh, cool! They can build webs together.

      Sometimes people talk about what makes a writer a writer. Is it writing every day? Is it getting published? I suggest this litmus test: How many spiders are in your house right now?