Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The colors in the tapestry: Interweaving subplots, part I

We speak of "weaving" subplots together.  I cannot think of a better metaphor.  Each sub-plot is a thread of a different color.  The author's job is to choose a palate, and then weave and layer those threads together to create the final tapestry.  What colors are in your book?

Despite their diversity, mysteries and thrillers often have a similar basic structure - or, to follow this analogy, similar colors:

The main plot is usually a murder, series of murders, or series of threats of murder or some other form of major destruction.  I call this the black thread.  But what makes a powerful image is not the black thread in a vacuum, but the way it plays off of the palate of colors around it.

Of equal importance to the murder plot is the green thread.  I call this subplot green because it is the quiet, calming storyline that makes us think - or wish - for just a moment that all is going to be OK.  This is the subplot that allows the reader a break from action, suspense and tension.  The green thread comes in the form of a flirtation or romance, the innocence of a child, a court jester.  It is the lighthearted subplot that makes the black thread more meaningful.

But then there's the red thread!  This clashing, glaring color ricochets off of the gentle green, because the red thread is the subplot of rain on the parade.  This subplot is often the work of a villain unrelated, or seemingly unrelated, to the main plot.  The villain may be a character.  It may be a natural disaster, or even just a sudden change in the weather.  It may be anything that throws a monkey wrench into the story.  Multiple red threads of multiple hues are welcomed and encouraged in a good book.

Personally, I like to have a gold thread or two.  I see the color gold in association with these subplots, probably because that's the color of the logo for the History Channel.  This is a subplot that piques a reader's intellect.  It is an element of historical fiction, or the science in a science thriller, or a political maneuver that has never been seen before.  It is this thread that lends depth to the story, and readers who like to be mentally challenged eat these subplots up.  Those that don't skim over them.  And that's OK.

As I complete the tapestry that will be The Vesuvius Isotope, I find myself snipping out a few threads that were misplaced, and then running my eyes over the tapestry as a whole, searching for better places to weave them in.  This is one of the fun parts.  It's a lot like assembling a jigsaw puzzle.  In the second part of this two-part series, I will give a few examples of how I like to see it done.

How do you like to see it done?  When you're writing a novel, do the subplots just form, or do you plan them deliberately, choosing your subplots to create your colors?


  1. I love this article. I never thought of writing in this way, even though I paint - doh. It makes so much more sense than anything else I've read.


  2. Haha that's funny, because I think of colors in terms of writing but I can't draw or paint to save my life :) I guess my words ARE my painting.

  3. Kirs- What a clear way of looking at story structure. This is really good stuff and can be applied outside of "thrillers"-- works for adventure stories too! This should be shared with our "Historical Novelists" group.

    Thank you! Stephanie Renee dos Santos

    1. Thanks Stephanie, I'll take the hint and do that!

  4. Excellent post. I agree with everything you wrote. The key is finding a balance between the threads. Too much of a particular color can be distracting or not enough of a color can be equally distracting. I find that I don’t use much, if any green. I have a couple humorous moments, and the hint of a romance. But I find that I don’t let the reader, breath or relax. Every scene builds the tension. My respites usually come from your gold strand. Mixing in historical fiction or details about aviation give the reader a page or two to relax.

    I am wondering if there should be a thread about emotion. It could be in the form of romance, hatred, or just a simple joy. Just a thought, love the new site!

  5. Wow! great article which I did not come across before I wrote my first thriller, 'The Madras Mangler'. I arrived at these thoughts quite serendipitously. But will use this article as my reference point as I wrestle with the different pieces of the jigsaw puzzle! Thank you.