August 5 – 11: “How do you seamlessly interweave the plots, sub-plots, and filler scenes?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week we’re talking with ITW Members Heather Redmond, Lynn Chandler Willis, J. A. Walsh and Aoife Clifford. The question of the week for our authors is: How do you seamlessly interweave the plots, sub-plots, and filler scenes in your novels?

 

Aoife Clifford is the author of All These Perfect Strangers, which was long-listed for both the Australian Industry General Fiction Book of the Year and the Voss Literary Prize. Born in London of Irish parents, she grew up in New South Wales and now lives in Melbourne. Clifford has won two premier short story prizes for crime fiction in Australia, the Scarlet Stiletto and the S.D. Harvey Ned Kelly Award, among other prizes. She has also been shortlisted for the UK Crime Association’s Debut Dagger.

 

Award-winning author Lynn Chandler Willis was the first woman in a decade to win the Private Eye Writers of America’s Best 1st PI Novel with her Shamus-nominated book, Wink of an Eye. Her traditional mystery series featuring newspaper publisher and reporter Ava Logan kicked off with Tell Me No Lies. The series continues in June and July 2019 with Tell Me No Secrets and Tell Me You Love Me. Her first published novel, The Rising, won the Grace Award for Execellence in Faith-based Fiction. Her work usually features small towns with big characters. She lives in the heart of North Carolina with Finn, a rescue border collie, and hopes to one day retire to the Appalachian region she often writes about.

 

J. A. Walsh worked in intelligence and counter-terrorism after the 9/11 attacks, before embarking on a career advising the U.S. military on energy security strategies. He has degrees in Russian, English literature, and Environmental Law. He lives in North Carolina with his family.

 

 

Heather Redmond is an author of commercial fiction and also writes as Heather Hiestand. First published in mystery, she took a long detour through romance before returning. The author of many novels, novellas, and short stories, she has achieved best-seller status at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Her 2018 novel, A Tale of Two Murders, received a coveted starred review from Kirkus Reviews and was a multi-week Barnes & Noble Hardcover Mystery Bestseller.

 

 

ITW

International Thriller Writers Inc represents professional authors from around the world. Learn more about them, their work, and the sources from which they draw their inspiration at the Official ITW Organization Website.

Interested in becoming a member of the International Thriller Writers? ITW offers Active and Associate memberships.
8 Comments
  1. I think if you stay grounded in your characters, the plots, subplots, and filler scenes weave together. If a plot is the main event that is driving the book, like a murder, and the subplots are side issues that often add to the main action, I see filler as the lifestyle stuff – what is going on in relationships, housing situations, career etc. Often, that can all be tied into the main plot as well but in any case, effectively builds the universe of a series.

    For instance, my book Grave Expectations has my sleuth, Charles Dickens, investigating a murder in his new residential building. His romance is damaged because of thefts in his rooms and his need to outlay all of his funds to deal with the consequences. We don’t know how the neighborhood thefts are involved with the murder. A subplot develops about some missing convicts, which causes the police to build a theory that gets a new friend arrested for the murder, and drags Dickens into investigating it.

    Since Dickens is in a new place, he has a fresh set of neighbors, so naturally, as an author, I get to pick characters that interest me while serving my story. One is a victim, one is a suspect, and one is a friend. These story people have to illustrate aspects of their environment. For instance, I chose a subplot of a developing friendship between our main character and a gay Jewish songwriter. I chose this character specifically to illustrate one underground danger of Victorian English life, and bring in my own voice, as a descendant of a London-based Jewish family. I tie this subplot into the one about Dickens needing money, and I get additional new settings like Jewish burying grounds, and yes, all of that ties into the main plot in the end, of solving the murder.

    Without these apparent subplots or filler scenes, we never could have solved the murder.

    It’s really quite elegant, isn’t it?

  2. Greeting from Down Under,

    Like an annoying ex-lawyer, the first thing I’m going to do is pull apart the question because my answer differs depending on which part we are talking about. Taking the last part first ‘filler scenes’, don’t weave them in to the manuscript, just ditch them. If it is filler get rid of it. My rule of thumb is no scene goes into my novels unless it serves at least two different purposes. Is it crucial to the plot plus illuminating a character? Does it contain important information for the next action scene plus drops a clue that the reader won’t even realise until the very end of the book? Then it stays in. Otherwise get your red pen out and start killing those darlings. You’re a crime writer, you’re used to blood on the page. What you might have left are some scenes which I think of as ‘action adjacent’, it isn’t going to get the reader’s pulse racing but sometimes you need those scenes for your characters (and readers) to take a breath and pull themselves together before the next plunge. For those scenes my mantra, borrowed from David Mamet, is ‘In Late, Out Early’. Make them as short as they can be.

    When it comes to plots and sub-plots, I try to treat them both with same amount of attention and importance. The sub-plot may not have the adrenalin and racing pulse of your main storyline, but it brings its own strengths. Plots can be where a reader fears for the characters, the sub-plot can be where they fall in love with them. I like to have links in theme between the plot and sub-plot and my favourite books are where the sub-plot comes crashing into the plot at the end, like two tectonic plates in an earthquake smashing into each other, to make something new and unexpected.

    But back to my quibbling about the question, sometimes you don’t want to interweave seamlessly. Sometimes you want to leave readers dangling from a cliff, furious that when they turn the page they find that you’ve changed location, character focus or time period. It’s the writerly version of the old bait and switch, done well it’s a sure fire page turner.

  3. Greetings from North Carolina! Still on my first cup of coffee so forgive me if I ramble, mumble, or stare blankly into space. Love this topic! I think filler scenes are okay as long as they serve the purpose of moving the plot forward. Even if they’re there to slow it down and let the reader catch their breath––as long as they move the plot forward, I’m good with them.

    Which brings me to the topic. Even the subplots and the fillers must move the plot forward. The reader may not know how that subplot or filler is going to connect until the end, but if done correctly, it will all connect.

  4. I agree with Aoife. There is no place for “filler” scenes. But the use of “action-adjacent” scenes to “catch your breath” make perfect sense. Action-reaction. I’m currently reading a book that has a lot of “filler” scenes (characters having coffee, talking about their dreams or their day, etc.) that really have nothing to do with the main plot. I’ve found myself just skipping over a lot of those “scenes” to get back to the main story.

  5. Happy Monday to my colleagues on the roundtable and to all the writers and fans in ITW’s ranks.

    Modern television writing has so much to teach about this question. As the volume of episodic TV has increased along with new platforms, I have been glad to see that many new shows are taking chances with the formulas that have traditionally defined episodic TV. We have shows that tell stories out of order, or from the perspective of different characters.

    Many of these techniques would be asking too much of thriller readers, but their lessons can be applied. In modern television, a small seemingly insignificant moment may only come back to demonstrate its true importance many episodes later. But, for that small moment not to end up on the cutting room floor anyway, it not only needs to be important but it needs to be entertaining. It needs to lodge itself in the viewer’s memory so that payoff can happen episodes later.

    Subplots and filler scenes can and should be done the same way. The writing should be evocative and should communicate – sub rosa – to the reader that although they may not yet understand the significance of everything in this scene, it will be important.

    These secondary plot scenes can be among the most challenging to write, but are also my favorite and – I think – the most fun to create.

    In Chapter 27 of my book Purpose of Evasion, I needed a POV character to witness something none of my main characters saw. But, because the Chapter is late in the book and near the action climax of the story, I needed this new character to make an impression in fewer than a page’s worth of words. To get there, I had to do as much research, prep and outlining as with any of my main characters: this man’s personal history, his political views, his hobbies, I needed to understand all of that deeply to be able to distill it succinctly.

    I agree with my colleagues, filler scenes should not be filler at all, but can be a way to entertain readers with depth of story and context for your characters.

    1. Hi J.A., I was interested in what you said about the parallels with modern television writing. I think I might disagree that many of the techniques would be asking a bit too much of the readership. Yes it might not work for fans of conventional thrillers (which as a part-time bookseller I know are many) but I actually think that the engine of the thriller is so strong that it is possible to be quite inventive with the structure if you want to. I enjoy it as a reader as well as a writer. For example the recent Costa winner in the U.K. – The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle uses a very interesting structural device. It is something I’ve played with in my novels all – All These Perfect Strangers had a sub-plot told completely in reverse, Second Sight had flashback chapters of one night, each from a different character, which allowed the reader to be way ahead of the protagonist in knowledge for part of the book. I think structure still has to serve the plot and the story, but done well, it can be really inventive.

      1. Aoife – I hope you are right – “I actually think that the engine of the thriller is so strong that it is possible to be quite inventive with the structure if you want to.” – because I definitely take my work there. I find myself very often fighting against being formulaic, only to routinely receive comments back from editors and readers that boil down to: “we want formula.”

        Selling genre fiction while trying to be innovative structurally is a tough needle to thread. I encourage writers to try but to realize what it might mean for the commercial prospects of the work.

        I would definitely suggest — from experience — making sure as a writer you can do the fundamentals flawlessly before trying high-wire tricks.

        Great comments! I have really enjoyed participating this week!

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