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Writing Lower Middle Grade Fiction, Part 4

Hello and welcome to the fourth and final installment on writing lower middle grade fiction! Today we cover ensemble casts and subplots in lower middle grade.

Both ensemble casts and subplots are elements that add complexity to story arcs and ground the main character’s journey in a real world teeming with other motivations, goals, and obstacles. But there’s a balance to maintain in adding complexity to plot and character while keeping the narrative clear for younger readers.

Before we embark on subplot and ensemble casts in lower middle grade, let’s first explore the general role that subplots play in narratives. Several wonderful blog posts have expounded upon this topic, and I urge you to check out Kid Lit, Middle Grade Minded, and Pens and Brushes. I’m taking bits of information from these posts, but each one is worth a full read.

Subplots are narrative devices that can achieve several feats in a manuscript:

· By switching from one plotline to another, the writer may speed up or slow down certain moments in the text.

· A subplot can increase tension by pivoting the action at the height of a critical moment.

· Subplots also can be used to fill gaps in the main plot by revealing additional information about characters or events.

Inserting a subplot into a manuscript can happen in several ways:

· The writer can create a secondary arc for the main character.

· The writer can create an arc for a secondary character, or the antagonist.

· The setting can act as a secondary character with its own arc, such as a building being torn down or an important election happening in the background.

While middle grade fiction doesn’t require writers to incorporate subplots, many authors successfully weave these secondary narratives into their stories. A main character of a middle grade book might be uncovering a shady juvenile delinquent operation while searching for treasure. Or they might be learning about The Innocence Project while working on a baking apprenticeship. In books with multiple POV (points of view), we might switch between the main character running from the law while the antagonist chases after him to restore her family’s reputation.

But subplots are a bit trickier in chapter books. Chapter books directly follow the category of “early readers,” which are short, straight-forward, and simple. The readers arriving to chapter books are not quite yet ready to tackle multi-level goals or several points of view in their stories.

This is why chapter books nearly always come out in a series. By breaking up the main character’s goals into individual books, the reader can enjoy all the offerings of subplots without having to piece them apart in one story. They can follow along as the main character grows or expands their goals, all within separate and tidy cover jackets.

So how do we split the difference when discussing lower middle grade fiction? Some lower MG is released in series, but not all. And by the time readers hit the lower middle grade level, they’re ready for some variation in the straightforward plot. How can we achieve that variation with a much lower word count and one POV?

That’s where ensemble casts come in! One way a subplot can take shape in a lower middle grade narrative is through multiple secondary characters or ensemble casts. In older categories, these secondary characters might have complex motivations and arcs. But that’s not necessary in lower middle grade for the subplot to function effectively in the text.

A subplot in a lower middle grade book can be a secondary character making a decision, or going through a change separate from the main character’s transformation. Subplots can also span multiple books if they are a part of a series. Maybe a secondary character is looking for a pet, and a few chapters (or books) later, they have a dog. The action doesn’t need to show up on the page for the reader to connect the dots. In fact, there is pleasure in leaving space for the reader to close. I call these extremely simple storylines “bookend subplots,” where the reader only sees the picture of the before and of the after, and they can fill in the rest of that narrative on their own.

In the Derby Daredevils series, the team itself functions as a subplot. Each team member gets her turn as protagonist in various books, and the corresponding main plots are about that character undergoing an internal or external journey. Yet all the while, the Daredevils team shifts from being formed, to competing in their first tournament, to stowing away at derby camp. This progression helps enrich the world of the books, even if the incremental changes don’t demand a lot of narrative spotlight.

Whether you decide to bring in advanced subplots in your work, use a background or setting as a subplot, sprinkle in “bookend subplots,” or split multiple plots into separate books, there are so many ways to treat readers to multi-tiered transformations in your work. Have fun trying out different techniques and exploring your fictional worlds as you search for elements that will enrich your main storyline.

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