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I want to add a few chapters that don't push the story forward; they only explore the background and motivations of the characters.

The best example I can think of is the Fly episode in Breaking Bad. The characters spend the whole episode chasing a fly while confessing things to each other.

For example, in the story I'm writing, I want to write two subplots (each one chapter long). One to make the reader understand the origin of the protagonist's depression. And the other to explore the protagonist's feelings towards the person she loves.

I thought it would be nice to give the reader a break from the main plot (and explore the characters a bit more). Or maybe I should leave these chapters out?

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    PD James does this all the time, and she's very good at it. – TRiG Sep 12 '14 at 15:20
  • Counter-example (sort-of): Moby Dick. Every other chapter is about whales, and I couldn't tell if it was unfunny parody or awful science. I suppose those chapters served a use when the book was written, because most readers knew almost nothing about whales. But after three of those chapters I said, "OK, I get it. Whales are amazing and fearsome creatures. I already knew that." So I skipped those chapters, and suddenly Moby Dick was an awesome book, with much faster pacing and a continuous build of tension. – dmm Sep 12 '14 at 16:02
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    Adding to my comment: So put the chapters in, for now. At the least, they will help you as you write the rest of your story. But later on, consider dropping them, unless they really help tell your main story. By "tell", I don't mean "advance the plot of". Obviously they don't do that -- not directly. But the "asides" might allow you to show why characters behave the way they behave later on, instead of telling why. In that case, you'd want to keep those off-plot chapters. – dmm Sep 12 '14 at 16:11
  • @dmm Woah, so does this mean Moby Dick is an old example of a hard science fiction? If so, I actually want to read it now. – DrZ214 Aug 10 '15 at 20:26
  • @DrZ214: I suppose one could see Moby Dick as a precursor to hard sci-fi. The "science" in Moby Dick is sometimes cringingly wrong, e.g., the narrator argues that whales are fish. But, yes, the story does depend upon the other hard science "facts". Facts like: "sperm whales are the most dangerous to hunt" and "sperm whales have great eyesight" and "sperm whales have great memories." But Moby Dick doesn't have the speculative aspect that I normally attribute to sci-fi. I would call it an adventure novel (on the surface), and a psychological thriller (below the surface). – dmm Aug 11 '15 at 13:06
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Every line you write should have some goal or purpose in your story: drawing the reader into plot, character, or setting. (In fact, having each line, or as many lines as you can, do two or more of these can work very well).

For example, the Fly episode presumably increases your empathy with characters, sets up important moments later on, etc.

If your break doesn't do any of these, what's the point? Leave it out.

If it does: what purpose does it serve to have a break here? Have you just had some tense scenes and need to relieve pressure so you can build it up again?

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    Agree, but would like to add that parts of a story which seem to have no relevance to the current book could be relevant to a future book. Though if it's just to have a "break" from the main plot, I'd be worried. – Sylas Seabrook Sep 12 '14 at 4:14
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All depends on what kind of book you write. The great novels of the past often meander like a continent-crossing river. The bestselling novels of today, on the other hand, quickly build tension and keep it taut and rising until the final explosive resolution. The price for this break neck speed is depth and meaning: many novels of today are meaningless beyond facilitating a short holiday from the reader's life and you quickly forget them. Meandering does not mean that earlier novels where random. Of course everything in Proust serves the purpose of the plot. But the plot of literary fiction is not concerned with tickling the basest instincts of the readers, as much of current genre fiction does. Everything, always, must serve the plot, but there are different plots, and between wam-bam action and the memoires of a dandy anything is possible. You need to know what you (want to) write and subordinate all your impulses to that objective.

I don't know at what point of your writing you are, but I usually recommend to write what you feel you want to write, and edit out superfluous junk during the revision process. That way, you don't get stuck during the telling of your story.

If you try to control your flow of ideas while you write, you might block yourself. So just enjoy the hot sex scenes that would turn your YA novel into porn, and delete them when you have cooled off ;-) Do the same with this subplot or anything else you are unsure about: just write it, and keep going until your book is finished. Then either delete it because you know it does not fit, or get some feedback from test readers, and then decide based on their reactions.

  • What a wonderful answer. I don't know why I never thought of it this way before. – lea Sep 12 '14 at 20:35
  • Good answer, but not sure why you are comparing "great novels of the past" with "bestselling novels of today"? – user10646 Sep 13 '14 at 6:36
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    @BroSlow Because literary tastes change. What was popular and interesting 200 years ago may or may not be "what sells" today. Standards and reader expectations are different. The book may still be great, but if the author tried to publish it today, it would never get out of the slush pile. @ what is just giving context: 200 years ago you had more room for meandering sub-plots because that's how most books were written; today they are not. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Sep 13 '14 at 13:50
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    @LaurenIpsum Your're still comparing completely different things. First, there is the issue of scale, where you are taking hundreds of years of literary history and comparing them to maybe 20 years. Second, you are comparing novels you deem great with novels that are bestselling. Sure, there were great novels that sold well when they were first published, but that hasn't necessarily been the trend throughout history. And there are more books published today than in the past, which makes me skeptical of the whole more room for meandering sub-plots, even if you're right per capita. – user10646 Sep 13 '14 at 18:52
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    @BroSlow - I think the comparison gives us a high-level view of how fashions and perceived best practices in writing have changed over the centuries. What we view as literature now may not be considered such in a few hundred years, and we view potboilers of the day (like Shakespeare) as sophisticated, influential fiction. – Neil Fein Sep 13 '14 at 19:45
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Oh my, yes. Just a personal opinion, but these lose me faster than anything else. I have a love/hate with Stephen King for the same reason. He gets so much into "atmosphere" (read - useless backstory) that I can hardly finish a large part of his books (and literally skip paragraphs and paragraphs when reading to get to the salient points).

  • Cough...ahem...Waterloo. – Jolenealaska Sep 13 '14 at 2:13
  • @Jolenealaska Indeed... Indeed... ;-) – Anaksunaman Sep 13 '14 at 3:50
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All depends on pacing.

Imagine the main plot needs a lot of slow build-up. You'd bore the reader. So introduce a sub-plot, an alternate layer that tells some backstories - captivating, thrilling backstories. Pepper your main story with episodes of the new thread to carry the reader through slow times.

Alternatively, you can give the reader a breather in case of really rapid action. The team hunkers down under fire and tries to wait out the enemy, they might exchange their stories from home and tell of their personal dramas while bullets whizz over their heads. Still, don't stretch that into whole chapters. Section of such slowdown at most.

OTOH, if you just give a slow, boring backstory, while the main story progresses at moderate pace, really try to keep it to minimum. It frustrates and bores to no end.

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Consider adding them as appendices. This gives readers the choice when, if at all, to break from the main plot, or delve deeper into the character backgrounds after finishing the main plot.

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    Or as a collection of related short stories published or posted independently of the book. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Sep 12 '14 at 10:07
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I'm a hobby writer and a learning coder, and I stumbled on this place. Very cool to find writers here, and what an excellent question. The answers above are excellent too.

As for subplots, the above fly episode, which I have not seen sounds interesting. Sometimes a writer needs to add exposition, and it would seem this person has done it in an interesting way. Many writers don't.

I have heard it said that a true sub plot looks at how a secondary character would deal with an issue very like the main characters but in a different way. It allows an examination of the road not taken.

There is a great writers site called Scribophile.com if you have further questions.

Just my thoughts. I wish you luck.

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The main plot of your story is what keeps the reader coming back for more. If that suddenly grinds to a halt, you run the risk of losing the reader. Just how entertaining and important are these chapters?

  • Could someone skip them and still enjoy the story?
  • Is the reader likely to become frustrated that the story has suddenly stopped?
  • Can the reader fill in the backgrounds/motivations for themselves?
  • Do you really need to explain everything, and if you do: Why can't these sides of their characters be revealed in the main story?

If you still feel you need these chapters, then make sure that you present them as an actual subplot -- which is to say, a separate story that runs alongside the main one.

You use the word "subplot" in your title, but then describe something which sounds like vague disconnected chapters. If there's another story to be had here, then there's no reason to not run it in parallel with your main one. That's often extremely enjoyable for your readers (just about every TV show episode has several stories, for example, that aren't all necessarily connected).

It's worth remembering that the FLY episode of Breaking Bad stopped the main story to delve into the characters, and the reaction by a lot of fans was VERY negative -- despite the fact that the episode itself is actually very well written and directed. It's generally not a good idea just to stop and meander, and when TV shows do it it's usually because of budgetary constraints. (Plus, it's worth noting that the episode DID progress the main storyline, if only slightly.)

So be honest with yourself, and your readers, and ask yourself if these extra chapters are entertaining. If you really thought the answer was "yes", I'm pretty sure you wouldn't be asking your question, so maybe you can take the information from them and make it more interesting somehow.

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