“But I Wanted To Tell That Story, Too”: When A Sub-Plot Is Really Just Another Plot (Lesson Learned)

Four thousand miles to the east, a new day was beginning. With
each passing minute, the sun’s rays heated the equatorial waters of
the Mauritanian coastline and generated an oppressive blanket of steam
that covered everything. The only relief was the relative breeze created
solely by the forward motion of the fishing boat. Sofiane Belmokhtari,
an Algerian and ethnic Moor, stood at the bow of the vessel looking aft
toward the pilot house. He was not a fisherman, and he was thankful of
that fact the more he observed the condition of the boat he was on. The
boat was an even blend of white and rust. Sofiane was keenly aware of
the smell of hake that permeated the entire boat. The fishing nets, lines
and floats reeked of fish. It was evident that this boat was used often and
recently, though today the lines remained coiled, the nets neatly piled on
the fantail. They were not fishing today.

So begins Chapter Five of my first novel, Open Source, and the beginning of a sub-plot that could just as easily have been left out.

Why I chose to include this sub-plot

Open Source is a book about an ordinary man’s brush with the world of illegal international arms deals and geopolitical intrigue with a backbone of modern piracy/maritime hijacking providing the glue that holds the story together. Casey Shenk is that “ordinary man.” A vending route driver from Savannah, Georgia, who blogs his way into trouble, Casey unwittingly finds himself the target of an Israeli assassin and the Russian mafia, putting him and his friends in extreme danger, when all they really wanted to do was drink beer and sing karaoke. But that’s life, I guess…or fictional life.

The main players throughout are Casey, the Israeli Mossad, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Russian gangsters, and a private intelligence consulting firm in New York City.

Sofiane Belmokhtari is an Algerian cab driver.

See, the book starts with the hijacking of the M/V Baltic Venture. It is a news report about the hijacking that catches the attention of Casey Shenk, the story’s main protagonist. Casey writes a blog about what he thinks might be the true story behind the ship’s mysterious disappearance and all hell breaks loose–for Casey, anyway.

When the Baltic Venture anchors off the coast of Mauritania to take on supplies, Sofiane is on the supply boat (described above). Only, he’s not there to deliver supplies, he’s there to take delivery of a package that is being smuggled on the ship. No one else onboard either vessel–the cargo ship or the fishing boat–know about Sofiane’s true purpose.

Sofiane recovers the package and begins a journey back to Algeria. The story of that journey, including the reason behind the Algerian’s mission, is told over 23 pages. The final result of his mission is revealed as reporting in five pages near the end of the book. So if you count those last five, the Sofiane Belmokhtari sub-plot is only 28 of 378 printed pages. That’s only 7.4% of the entire book. But was it necessary?

Not really.

You see, Sofiane’s final act serves as an impetus for our heroes to make one final play to get the truth out–about the hijacking, the arms deal,…everything. But the fact that Sofiane Belmokhtari, a taxi driver in the city of Algiers, was the one who sparked that action on the part of Casey Shenk and friends is immaterial.

BUT, Sofiane’s story allowed me to explore and comment on (through story narrative) Islamic terrorism and corruption in many of the North African governments–a full five months before the Tunisian Revolution and the start of the Arab Spring, mind you. This sub-plot in Open Source was fun to write, but it really didn’t do anything for the overall book.

I have only had a few comments from readers about the seemingly disconnected story of Sofiane since I published the book in July 2010, but those comments were either neutral or negative in the readers’ minds. After writing two more novels in the Casey Shenk series, I tend to agree with those folks.

Sub-plots that do not connect in a more meaningful way than Sofiane’s to the main plotline of the story, merely serve a distraction. In my case, the journey of a revenge-minded Algerian from through the northwest countryside of Africa merely served to disrupt the pacing of the story as a whole. And THAT is not good.

In hindsight, Sofiane’s story would have made a good (great?) short story, but it really had no place in the larger work of Open Source.

Lesson learned.