August 26 – Sept 1: “Oh, the plots, the sub-plots, and filler scenes. How to interweave them seamlessly?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5“Oh, the plots, the sub-plots, and filler scenes. How to interweave them seamlessly?” This week join ITW members Steve Alten, Michelle Gagnon, Carole Nelson Douglas, Donna Del Oro, Douglas Corleone and Amy Christine Parker as they discuss the weaving of plots and sub-plots and fillers.


gatednewcoverAmy Christine Parker writes full-time from her home near Tampa, Florida, where she lives with her husband, their two daughters, and one ridiculously fat cat. Visit her at and follow her on Twitter @amychristinepar

dontlooknowMichelle Gagnon is the international bestselling author of books for teens and adults. Described as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo meets The Bourne Identity,” her YA technothriller DON’T TURN AROUND was recently nominated for a Thriller Award, and was selected as one of the best teen books of the year by Entertainment Weekly Magazine, Kirkus, Voya, and the Young Adult Library Services Association. The sequel, DON’T LOOK NOW, will be published on August 28th by HarperTeen. She splits her time between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Omega tor coverFINALSteve Alten is the bestselling author of the MEG series, including MEG: HELL’S AQUARIUM. A native of Philadelphia, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Penn State, a masters from the University of Delaware, and a doctorate from Temple University. He is the founder and director of Adopt-An-Author, a free nationwide teen reading program used in thousands of secondary school classrooms to excite reluctant readers.

Cat in an Alien X-RayUSA TODAY bestselling and NEW YORK TIMES Notable author Carole Nelson Douglas never met a genre she didn’t like. Of her sixty published novels, forty are mystery and suspense titles, but her books have made mystery, science fiction/fantasy, and romance bestseller lists. She also writes the Delilah Street, Paranormal Investigator, noir urban fantasy series and was the first author to make a woman from the Sherlockian canon, Irene Adler, a protagonist, in eight acclaimed historical suspense novels. A former award-winning newspaper reporter, she thrives on a potent brew of research and imagination.

liesinwait-postcardDonna Del Oro lives in Northern California and, when she’s not researching and writing, sings in the Sac Valley Chorus. To learn more about Donna, please visit her website.

GOOD AS GONE - finalDouglas Corleone is the author of contemporary crime novels published by St. Martin’s Minotaur. A former New York City criminal defense attorney, Douglas Corleone now resides in the Hawaiian Islands where he is at work on his next novel.


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  1. I’m now writing the 26th novel in my 27-volume, alphabetically titled Midnight Louie mystery series. This wouldn’t be possible without a continuing back story arc and subplots behind each novel’s “up front” murder mystery.

    Subplots (and secondary characters) derive from your main character’s personal and professional back stories, which you reveal and deepen from book to book. Also, any major character’s antagonists will “bleed” over into the lives and safety of the other protagonists and characters.To sustain a long series, I use the points of view of four protagonists (two men, two women, two of them crime pros, two amateur). Their relationships constantly shift from allies to antagonists, but they are basically frenemies
    with the same ultra-enemy. All the characters are pursuing investigations the others are unaware of at times. Secrets drive tension. This can work for a single novel as well as a series. Once you start linking characters at odds with their own back stories and motives, these personal subplots provide tension, dramatic irony and character growth. This suggests even more plot twists.

  2. Wow, Carole, I’m impressed. But last time I checked there were only 26 letters in the alphabet. How is there going to be a 27-volume, alphabetically titled series? Sounds like a subplot.
    I prefer to call subplots the B story. There’s a difference between filler and the B-story. First, a B-story woven around your main plot culminates in the big ending when A and B collide. A B-story also allows your A story space to breathe and time to pass without resorting to filler — which is fat.
    In my DOMAIN series, the B story was told in the excerpts from a lost journal written by my hero’s deceased father. The journal excerpts, placed every 3 to 5 chapters, allowed me to detail mysteries of archaeology told thru the character’s eyes — while detailing how his son had grown up, giving us insight into the A story hero — and ultimately the reason he hated his father.
    In the 4th book of my MEG series, MEG; HELL’S AQUARIUM there were two stories that were equally strong involving characters chasing two different sea monsters. . .all leading to the epic battle between Megalodon and Liopleurodon. With two weaving plots, there is no room for filler.
    One last point — it’s tough to create sub-plots or B stories when you write in the first person. Everything happens in the hero’s perspective. I experienced that with my new release, THE OMEGA PROJECT. Take a peak —

  3. LOL, Steve. Midnight Louie, being the Sam Spade of cats, an ultra-independent breed, goes the regular alphabet and Sue Grafton one letter better. The publisher wanted to change the title format after CATNAP and PUSSYFOOT, the first two books, to something repeatable. We came up with CAT ON A BLUE MONDAY. I foresaw a long series, so grabbed onto the interior “color” word alphabet format. CATNAP is soon reissuing as CAT IN AN ALPHABET SOUP and PUSSYFOOT as CAT IN AN AQUA STORM, so the alphabet will be a proper AA to Z sequence in eBook at least.

    Regarding alphabets, a good place to examine the A and B story patterns in their infinite variety but greatest simplicity is any TV or cable crime series. Often the B story is the more humanizing one intertwining through the hardcore action, and sometimes even comic relief. It does need to link back to the main storyline at the end of a single book or episode, but can continue into the next episode in a series. The ongoing B storyline can be the romance on Castle, or the domestic upsets on Rizzoli and Isles. Or it can be the oddball or cold secondary case that emerges to loom large at the end of the current main storyline.

    I agree that NO filler is ever needed or wanted. Every element should contribute to driving forward plot or character.

    The first person does make B stories difficult, so I mix first person and third person in my novels. Midnight Louie “writes” his chapters in classic hardboiled PI. The four human sleuths are in third person, which allows them full freedom to investigate independently
    (and get into trouble).

    In my Sherlockian historical Irene Adler series, which features a female narrative “Watson,” I’ve used letters and newspaper reports, and even diary excerpts from an anoymous psychopath in the two Jack the Ripper-after-Whitechapel novels. Given the historical setting, documents and diaries are very believable. Bram Stoker pioneered that technique in DRACULA, making the supernatural credible, and his book is as readable as the Holmes stories even today. That technique is still useful, even with texting and social media snippets.

    The Midnight Louie series is set in Las Vegas, an international melting pot, so I’ve had a terrorism B story plotline running through it since the beginning, with an Irish-American main character who ticked off the IRA during a youthful trip to Ireland. That opened up a mystery series to thriller action abroad, as Max deals with a mortal enemy from Ireland now showing up in Vegas to stalk him and his associates. That’s what I mean about character back story providing plotting opportunities.

    The series has run for so long that the Irish Troubles ended with a peace agreement. Good for humanity, bad for plotting! Enough real life issues linger to keep that IRA B story going to the series climax, as Cold War thriller writers found after the shock of the Soviet Union dissolving. The fun of writing is melding real life with our plotting needs.

  4. I write mainly first person present and so I do agree with Steve, that it is a bit tougher to add in lots of subplots or filler from this point of view. You see other characters, but your sense of who they are is always skewed because it’s the perception of them through your main character’s eyes, not necessarily who they are entirely. Every event is limited by how much your main character participates in it or observes it. In my book, Gated, I have a secondary plot running in tandem with the first through flashbacks. Every few chapters the character remembers something from the past that helps explain how she ended up where she did in the present and ultimately adds to the tension of the overall story line because it gives you a sense that the antagonist in the story was at work on his own plots much longer than the main story can convey. I think when writing, how you use subplots depends very much on how your story is constructed and what view point that you choose to use. If I write in third person it is much easier to add in some extra story lines that run parallel to the plot at hand. No matter what tense, though, a subplot isn’t worthy of the story unless it enhances or underpins it in some way. I’m not a fan of filler scenes. I think moments of less intensity are definitely needed, but they should always still propel the story forward, serve it in some way. I’m not a fan of writing in scenes just because they’re well done or beautifully constructed. ( I say this knowing full well that in first drafts I ALWAYS have many, many of these scenes and even subplots, but that is all about me finding the true story and I am very ruthless about cutting them) In short, subplots for me are ways to deepen my story and characters while still propelling the plot forward.

  5. Hi folks-

    So I’ve written both a series and a trilogy, and for me the trilogy presented the toughest challenge. Having a main plot that crossed through three books, while coming up with subplots that moved the action forward, while at the same time offering a satisfying conclusion to each book, was much, much harder than working on a series where the characters crossed over, but the storylines were much more contained.

    I also wonder about the term “filler scenes.” I try not to incorporate any scenes unless they directly advance the plot or explain more about the characters and their motivations. But maybe this means something else?

  6. I write exclusively in first person and never have a shortage of subplots. In my Kevin Corvelli legal thriller series, I use the lives of recurring characters (like Kevin’s law partner and his private investigator) to create subplots. In my current series of international thrillers (which jut kicked off with Good As Gone), because there are very few recurring characters, most of the subplots involve the hero Simon Fisk. The primary plot is Simon’s investigation into the abduction of a young American girl from her parents’ hotel room in Paris. Each of the subplots (Simon’s romantic relationship with a Warsaw lawyer, his being wanted in several countries for unlawful conduct related to earlier cases, his dealing with his emotional wounds from losing his own daughter ten years ago) all derive organically from the plot. So I disagree with my fellow authors that it’s tougher to create subplots when you write in first person. On the contrary, I think the limitation of writing in first person helps the author to create only the most relevant subplots, which keep the entire story moving forward, which we all agree is imperative in writing thrillers. I also agree that there is no room in thrillers for filler scenes.

  7. Michelle’s point about the plotting demands of a trilogy is why I write open-ended series. 🙂
    A trilogy is like three act plays, which are notorious for having weak Act Twos, as trilogies are for having weak “middle” books. Yes, you need a strong climax at the end of all three books, without blowing the main overarching plot. It’s a popular format in the YA , fantasy, and romance genres, and can be done. Look at The Hunger Games.

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