When I was growing up Chris Claremont and John Byrne (with Terry Austin, Glynis Wein and my favorite letterer EVER Tom Orzechowski) were taking comic books to new levels that are taken for granted now. Their run on Uncanny X-Men from 1977 – 1981 shaped how comics are made forever. What did they do? They built up anticipation with subplots that would run over the course of several issues as a ‘D’ or ‘C’ story of a couple of panels or one page or so and then graduate it to a ‘B’ story for a couple of issues before it became the ‘A’ story. The one featured on the cover.
It was classic soap opera storytelling but it was NEW. Well, not absolutely new, but they did it in a way that was so fresh it appeared new. I suspect they learned it from what Paul Levitz was doing as he was writing his classic Legion of Superheroes runs and he did the same thing. Anyway, that’s enough about comics for the nonce. (I always wanted to use ‘nonce’ in a blog post. Check that one off my list.)
This is what influenced me in storytelling, these amazing comics that took me places I’d never been before, told me stories in ways I hadn’t seen before. That particular run, Uncanny 108 to 143, made me want to make comics. I wanted to draw like Byrne (with Austin) and write with the style of Claremont but I didn’t know how. I didn’t know what to do. It took me years to realize there was a secret I hadn’t picked up on and even then I wasn’t sure how to go about discovering it.
I realized I would have to deconstruct the stories when I saw mention of “The Levitz Paradigm” in a book about writing comics by another great comic book writer, Denny O’Neill. It’s a simple grid that a writer uses to track the stories from ‘D’ to ‘A’ across several issues of a series. I applied that retroactively to the X-Men comics and I figured out how to subplot.
It turns out it works for novels and interconnected short stories, too.
Subplots are important for building up your story. Not padding it out, that’s not what I mean. Don’t do that because that’s bad writing. Anytime you’re padding you’re cheating and the reader can tell. Trust me. You can’t fool ‘em so don’t try.
No, if you can have two subplots that resolve before the climax of your novel-length story you’ll win the readers because you cared enough to invest in more than one character. If you’re writing short stories, use things in the background that can graduate to their own stories eventually.
How do you do this? Well, you have to plan for it. You can’t just throw some stuff down and pretend that you meant it to be that way all along. That’s a cheat, too, and you’ll get caught out. No, you’ll have to invest some time in this. Think it through. Be proactive if that’s what you want to do. (To be fair, sometimes it works out that way but a writer should never depend on it.)
What a subplot does is simple: it gives the writer some breathing room and allows the reader to reset when the action of the main story is becoming intense. It distracts the writer as well and keeps the story fresh for him as he’s pounding away at the keyboard. It’s my belief that a subplot doesn’t have to necessarily be shown. It can be in the background, mentioned by supporting characters or media devices. I’m talking about things like news stories or natural disasters or a character’s unseen lover. The trick to using those things is to not fall into the cliche.
So. Subplots. I use them but not as effectively as I need to. It’s something I’m working on for the next novel, though. Thank you, Claremont, Byrne, and Levitz (et al) for giving me something in my childhood that I would use in my adult life for only thirty cents a month. That’s a bargain. The best I ever had.