Being a Better Writer: Subplots

This post was originally written and posted March 3rd, 2015, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

So about a week ago, as I was browsing a social site online, I came across a cry for help. A writer was in the process of putting together their first story—an epic journey adventure across an unknown continent kind of story—and they’d run into a major snag. Once they stepped outside the action scenes, they were finding that everything else about their story fell flat. There just wasn’t anything gripping going on outside of those pivotal plot moments. And they wanted to know what they could do to mitigate this, to make the story more than a clear case of moving from point A to point B to point C.

The answer was that he needed to have stuff to fill in the periods between those points that wasn’t just … padding. Material that was more than filler.

They needed a subplot.

So, we’re going to start with the basics here today: What is a subplot, and why do I need one? Why are they so important? And how do I use one?

Well, to begin with, a subplot is a story sequence or collection of events that happens outside, or only partially connected to, the main plot. It may interact with the main plot occasionally (and, if the characters are connected, intertwine with), but overall it is a slightly separated plot-line designed to break up the monotony of traveling from point to point. Essentially, at it’s barest core, it is another, smaller plot-line nestled inside the overall plot-line of your story. Sort of like a miniature story happening during your larger story, but not superseding the main plot-line’s overall importance. This breaks up the main plot, keeping it fresh for the reader, as well as allowing the author to explore other parts of the story that don’t as tightly intersect with the core plot.

Let’s look at an example. The core premise of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the Tri-wizard tournament, which ties the entire story together and brings everything to a climax. However, what are some of the sub-plots in the story? Harmione’s relationship with Victor Krum could certainly count—it really isn’t central to the story as a whole, or vital. Fred and George’s constant dealings with Ludo Bagman over their withheld betting winnings certainly counts, as it has little to do with the story except provide some comic relief and throw a few red herrings at the reader to distract from the main plot. In fact, you could almost count the entire Quidditch World Cup as a subplot—though one that foreshadows quite a bit of the main plot—as the cup itself, despite being an exciting event, doesn’t have much to do with the plot as a whole except provide a few key moments of plot-convenience and introduction for various characters. But it’s fun, it’s exciting! And as readers, we enjoy it. The rest of the subplots come across in similar fashion: Some are key to the core story while others are not, but each of them helps distract from the core story for a period, allows us to enjoy different aspects of the universe or enjoy a bit of levity before moving back into the overall core plot.

How about another example? We’ll go with Rise this time. Clearly, the core plot-line of Rise is the formation of the Dusk Guard and their operations on their first mission. But what about sub-plots that come up over the work? Well, there’s Steel’s fight with his sister and eventual reconciliation with Cappy, which while interesting events, don’t truly have much to do with the core story. Then there’s Sky’s work on the team’s armor and The Hummingbird. Then there’s Nova’s struggles with his own past and coming to grips with it, though that one also comes to a head during the climax of the primary plot. For one more, we need look no further than the game of Capture the Flag the team participates in. While it provides an exciting few chapters and serves to add narrative weight to the core plot-line in the end, overall it’s a piece of story that isn’t exactly core to the plotline—the lessons learned during it could have simply been narrated in a few lines from the primary characters.

A final, more simplified analogy. The core plot of your story is like a piece of rope. It has a beginning. It has an end. And as the reader follows this “rope,” they’ll be taken from one end to the other.

The subplots, however, are like pieces of extra string grafted onto the outside of that rope. Their beginning and endings start and conclude at different points around the rope, but they’re there to break up the plain surface of the rope, to intertwine with—or sometimes temporarily overshadow—the core plot line in order to add color and life. And while sometimes they may interweave with that core plot, in the end they have their own separate moments. They are, after all, their own separate pieces of string.

Alright, so we know what they are. But let’s move onto the second, more pressing question. Why would we use them? For that matter, let’s toss in the third question too, and bring up how we use them as well, since both play off of one another.

First of all, something to understand is that not every story needs a subplot. As a general rule of thumb, the shorter your story is, the less you need to worry about your reader getting tired of it before it’s over, and if they are, and your story is already quite short, than a subplot probably isn’t the answer to your problem. But if you’re one of those writers who wants to write something that’s moving into the novel or epic range, you’re probably going to want to include a subplot or two, maybe more as the work gets larger.

Now, understand that just because you can doesn’t mean that you should. This is an important point to realize. Subplots are a tool, in the end, and just like any other tool in the writer’s toolbox, they need to be used at the right time and the right place. If you’re going to insert a subplot into your story, make sure that you’re doing so at the appropriate moments. Also make sure that your subplot isn’t at odds with or distracting from your core plot. For example, if your story is all about the importance of family, making your subplot carry the theme that family is the worst—and then leaving it at that—is going to undermine your core. Make sure that the subplot you want to add isn’t going to take away or damage the central theme of the story. You want it to compliment what you’ve already put in place and work with it, not pull away from. Consider a subplot a line of thread that you’re adding to an in-progress tapestry—by the end it must enhance the finished product.

So, how can we predict whether or not our subplot will be an enhancement? Well, aside from practice, we need to consider some of the other aspects of story creation. A subplot is a self-contained story within your work, so it’s important that when you decide to include on, that you treat it as such. It needs to be given careful attention for all the aspects of story creation, from pacing to character development. But then, making this task a bit more difficult, those elements need to be woven into the story as a whole. So we need to sit back and consider the ramifications of adding this “complete” story into a story that’s already in progress.

And at that point, everything is in your hands. The decision of where to start and stop your subplot is up to you, as is the decision of how much of the story the subplot will encompass, and even how many subplots the story will have. All that’s left is execution.

Make no mistake, the larger a story becomes, the higher chance of likelihood that you’ll see a subplot as the right tool from your toolbox. But inclusion and execution of a subplot, however, remains up to you.

Honestly, there isn’t much more that I feel I could say on this topic without just going into more examples (and I think I’ll save that for another time). A subplot is an additional story “within” your story that you can use to both “break up” the core storyline as well as to explore and get more involved in other areas of your universe and characters. Proper use a of a subplot will engage your reader more fully in the world as well as pace out the elements of your plot, while improper use can detract from the story as a whole. As a subplot is, in a form, a self-contained story within your existing story, it takes just as much care and thought as your core story, and should only be used when you feel that it benefits or supports your primary narrative.

But, once you pull it off, it’s a bit like the old adage of “1+1=3.” Weaving a subplot into your core story is, admittedly, a lot of work and a bit difficult. It may take practice. Or false starts. But once you succeed at it, you’ll find that your story is all the better for it.

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