Writing Lessons from Les Mis: Plotting and Subplotting

Having just finished a read-through of Les Misérables, I’ve been struck by the writing. It’s a long book at well over 600,000 words, so I definitely wouldn’t recommend writing a modern novel of that length, but it’s a classic nevertheless. It’s been made into dozens of movie versions, beginning in 1897 and continuing onward, with the most recent being the 2012 adaption of the stage musical. It tells a powerful story of redemption, hope, transformation and love, and we, as authors, can learn a lot from it—what to admire and what to avoid.

First, let’s look at the plot.

The story, though long, is actually fairly straightforward. It’s the story of three men’s encounter with goodness, personified by Cosette, and how they change (or don’t change) accordingly. One is a convict who has served his very long sentence (lengthened thanks to his escape attempts) and is back in society again; one is a parasitic liar who has always taken whatever he could without getting caught; and one is a student, a young man encountering the world for the first time. We follow all three—Jean Valjean, Thénadier, and Marius—as they go through their lives, now greatly involved with Cosette, now far from her.

How the Plot Works:

  • Alternating the focus. The story doesn’t jump all over the place, though it does have many characters to cover. Instead, it almost works as a relay race, where we follow one character, even a minor character like the Bishop, as long as that character can carry us, up until there’s a reason to change. Usually, the author waits until we’ve naturally met another character before he makes the switch. We don’t meet Jean Valjean until he enters the Bishop’s life, for example; then, we stay with him until the author needs to introduce Fantine, Cosette’s mother.

No attempt is made to be strictly chronological. The author takes us back in time as needed, like when he introduces us to Thénadier and his actions at Waterloo, which in many ways keeps the plot simpler, as we’re told pieces of information when we have enough about that person to help make the info “stick.” Otherwise, such details could easily be lost in the other character’s story (if, for example, the author had tried to show us Thénadier’s rescuing Marius’ father when it actually happened, it might have earned a place at the very beginning of the book—at which point we’d wonder what happened to him and why that scene mattered, as we wouldn’t hear anything more about either man for a long, long time).

  • Interlacing the threads. The author brings the characters together at every opportunity and not just through their knowing Cosette, keeping any particular character from being stuck on the “back burner” for long. The same policeman, Javert, is involved in their lives throughout the story, personifying law—inflexible law with no mercy or fear. They tend to live in the same places, and Marius father was “saved” from death on the battlefield of Waterloo thanks to Thénadier, his nearly lifeless body brought out to where others would find him thanks to that man’s greed.

At one point, Jean Valjean rents a room in a certain house. A little while later, after he moves away, Thénadier and Marius rent from the same house. Thénadier concocts a scheme to solicit money from a rich man (much like a modern day scammer; his letters are fun to read due to the similarities, right down to the bad spelling), and who should the rich man be but Jean Valjean? Marius gets pulled in as a witness and spy for the Javert, who knows something is going on that night and hopes to catch the criminals in the act.

There was no particular need for Jean Valjean to be involved, per se—the moment is pivotal in Marius’ character arc but doesn’t really do anything for Jean Valjean’s—but by having him be involved, the author manages to bring the plot threads together so the reader can keep tabs on everyone.

Where the Plot Struggles:

  • Too many threads. The author wrote the book well, but it’s almost like he forgot to edit it. There are huge swathes of plot-line that has nothing to do, directly, with any of the three men. It could be argued that they loosely have to do with the plot, as they expand on the Bishop who influences Jean Valjean’s life or discuss how the son of Thénadier lives and survives in Paris on his own, but because they aren’t really about the three men and how they interact with Cosette and each other, they have nothing to do with the plot.
  • Author monologues. This is another moment where the author goes a little crazy. He pontificates on the things his character’s experience, whether they encounter Waterloo, the Paris streets, the sewer, or the convent. Whenever he introduces a new topic as a result of the plot, he has to inform you how he feels about it—and it slows down the story at every turn.
  • Out-of-Character speeches. At one point, Jean Valjean runs into an associate of Thénadier’s who tries to steal his wallet. He catches the man in the act, and rather than giving him a short warning to encourage him to stop his life of crime, he goes on and on for pages, sounding more like the author than himself and indicating things about himself that I doubt he’d reveal to a stranger, no matter how much he wanted to help him, as it could help bring the police back on his trail.
  • Martyrdom for no reason. Towards the end, I feel like the author makes Jean Valjean suffer needlessly just so he can have his melodramatic martyrdom moment. Instead of letting Marius find out about Jean Valjean’s goodness through Thénadier’s scheming earlier, to where Jean Valjean could be reunited with Cosette and enjoy life with she and Marius, it all is revealed “too late”—for no particular reason. I’m not saying every story has to have a happy ending, but I think a happier ending could’ve felt just as powerful, though a bit awkward for Jean Valjean—but I feel his learning to get used to accepting gratitude could’ve been another part of his journey in life. That, or Jean Valjean’s death could’ve been foreshadowed to where it was more inevitable and less the “fault” of anyone, to where it was just his time to go.

There you have it! Two things we can learn from the book, and four pitfalls we can strive to avoid. Next, I want to look at how the author handles description and characterization, in general, discussing how he made these characters that still speak to us, over a hundred years after he wrote them.

Until then, happy writing!


Copyright 2018 Andrea Lundgren

Image by Moya, Creative Commons

4 thoughts on “Writing Lessons from Les Mis: Plotting and Subplotting

    1. Readers have definitely gotten “minds of their own” these days. I wonder if it’s because their no longer a “captive audience.” We have so many options of what we read that, unless we like it, we’ll go find something else—forcing authors to write what we want or get overlooked and passed by. It could be a bad thing, I suppose, but I think it could also be a challenge, helping authors write well and not “take the easy way out” and write without editing.
      Thanks for commenting!


  1. I loved reading and writing. I actually am trying to write a book- it is a children’s fantasy dealing with Fairy Frogs and toads- themes of friendship, compassion, and forgiveness are in there.

    By the way, Les Misérables is one of the favorite musicals and books.


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