Subplots: Dogs on a Hike

Moose in BreckenridgeThis morning my wife and I woke up at 6AM, ate a hearty breakfast, and then took our four dogs on a three mile hike along Blue Lakes in Breckenridge, Colorado. Three miles isn’t a particularly long hike, until you add in the vertical climb (around 1500 feet), the dangerous terrain – slippery scree fields, narrow single track through alpine scrub, and boggy marshland near the headwaters – and the altitude of more than 11,000 feet. Combine all those factors, and three miles feels more like six. Or nine.

It’s one of my favorite hikes though, for all of those reasons. It’s challenging. It varies greatly from one stretch to another. It’s beautiful. And it’s not particularly well known, which means we usually have the entire trail to ourselves.

What does this have to do with this week’s topic: subplots? Nothing, yet. The hike I described is much like a good story: it varies, it has high points and low points, it has a great climax, it feels rewarding after you’re finished. And, like most of my manuscripts, it manages to do all these things in relatively short distance!

However, like most good stories, my hike follows a pretty straightforward path. A fun, interesting, variegated path, but still a straightforward one. I enjoy the hike, but it doesn’t leave much to figure out or discover. Not many detours or forks in the road.

At least, not for me. For my dog, Wally, however, EVERY hike we take is a series of twists, turns, detours, dead-ends, and secret shortcuts. During our three mile hike, Wally easily covered ten miles. He chased yellow-bellied marmots, barked at a moose (see the picture we snapped above), explored a variety of small caves, trail-blazed paths around seemingly intractable obstacles, slaked his thirst beside a highland stream, rolled in July snow, and in general had a roaring good time on the mountain.

My wife and I enjoyed the hike. Wally made it an absolute adventure.

Watching a dog on a good hike gives you great insight into just how much more fun we could be having if we just let ourselves off the beaten path once in a while. Same with writing. Plots are easy. They may vary, they probably bump up and down, they ought to twist and turn. But they still take us from A to Z. Subplots, however, are the detours, the zig-zags, the carefree exploring and discovering that take a good, linear plot, and transform it into an unforgettable adventure.

Thanks, Wally, for reminding me that the best path to take is never the straight one.

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