Steve Urkel has taken over my story.
Well, not actually. Allow me to explain.
Family Matters was a sitcom about the trials and tribulations of the Winslow family. One day, a supporting character in the form of nerdy neighbour Steve Urkel made his first appearance. He kept showing up. Then suddenly, he became the main character of the show. He wasn’t even a member of the Winslow family. But now he’s arguably the most memorable thing about Family Matters.
This is an example of a story where a supporting character outshone the main character (presumably family patriarch Carl Winslow), eventually taking over the story and becoming the star. The original premise of the TV show was no more; it was all about Urkel. And now I’m concerned that the supporting narrative, or subplot, or B story, in my work in progress, is at risk of being ‘Steve Urkeled’.
In my murder mystery, The Princess Murders, the main plotline follows the main character, Sylvie, a private investigator trying to solve the murder of her best friend, Bianca. Running parallel is a subplot involving Sylvie’s other investigation into the dodgy dealings of a local school teacher, Leeder. Although seemingly unrelated, these two plotlines come together at the climax to reveal they’ve been linked all along. The solution to the B story (Leeder) mystery is linked to the solution to the A story mystery (Bianca’s murder).
But as I wrote the first draft, quite freely and trying not to overthink things, Leeder kept showing up. Okay, I thought. He can stay there for now and I’ll just edit him out in my rewrites. But as I’m now working through, scene by scene, I don’t know what to cut. Is it because A and B are so intrinsically linked that I can’t separate them, or is it that Leeder is just like pesky Steve Urkel, and won’t leave the story alone?
The B story has to be apparent enough so the reader understand what’s going on, but it should be balanced throughout the story so that it adds to the A story without overwhelming it. Jordan McCollum has written a seven-part blog series on subplots that is well worth checking out.
Leeder is a sneaky character so it’s not surprising that he keeps trying to sneak into my story. But the main narrative is Sylvie trying to solve the murder of her best friend. Even though the B story is important to the A story, I know I’ve got to pare it back and focus on what The Princess Murders is really about. So, I’ve developed a checklist to help me determine which scenes need to be cut/edited/rewritten.
- Does this scene involving the B story affect the main character? Could it be achieved another way?
- Does this scene raise the stakes and increase tension and suspense? (Remembering this is a mystery novel, after all).
- Do I need to include this much information or can I trust the reader to draw the right conclusions?
- Will the main character go on to do things in the main plot without this B story scene?
The best advice comes from K.M. Weiland at Helping Writers Become Authors, who states:
“There are no subplots, just plots. As such, your goal is to integrate your subplot ideas into your main plot so seamlessly they’re inextricable. Although you will probably need to create certain scenes that revolve entirely around subplot ideas, it’s best if you can weave them into your main plotline’s concerns as much as possible.”
With enough thought, time and effort, I should be able to successfully de-Urkelise my story and re-focus on the main plotline (and definitely avoid any scenes where Leeder pops up and asks “Did I do that?”)