#15 Plotting 101: The Elusive Magic of Subplot
An Introduction to Subplot
Writing subplot can be elusive. We learnt in past weeks that plot is the dramatic restructuring of your chronological story. This article explores the idea of subplot. What is subplot, and what purpose does it serve in our narrative? Why is it important? What are the types of subplot and how to effectively add them to our plot?
What is Subplot?
A subplot is a mini-plot, or dramatically restructured story, that runs parallel to your main plot. Writers can incorporate one or multiple subplots in their story, which they start and resolve before the resolution of the main plot.
Think of the main plot as a thick brown rope you weave on the floor of your living room. It has a start and an end. Now, imagine you took a thin string and tied this to various points of your rope. First, you take a red string and tie a knot where the subplot starts and lastly, you tie the red string off further along your rope before it ends. This image should give you a clearer understanding of plot.
What is the Purpose of Subplot?
There are six main reasons for adding subplots to your novel:
The first reason for subplot is to deepen the characterisation of your characters. You place them in different situations which reveals how they think and respond because this helps your readers understand them better.
For example, your main plot introduces the character. Your subplot can have them encounter someone from their past and demonstrate how they respond to this person giving the readers a clearer picture of their personality. If it is a past girlfriend, we can learn that the character is shown their profession over love. Perhaps we learn that the character regrets that decision, but is too proud to admit it. This deepens our bond with the character.
The second reason for subplot is to showcase your character’s transformation. Either they gain or lose knowledge, either they grow or regress. The main plot showcases your protagonists character arc or change, but the subplot demonstrates how effective that growth has been.
For example, if your character is a hard-nosed, play-by-the-book lawyer, the main plot can show them learning to colour outside the lines. Your subplot would demonstrate the character taking on a case they otherwise never would have before having learnt this crucial lesson.
Introduce Conflict and Complication
The third reason for subplot is to introduce conflict and complications to build tension. Most plot structure frameworks incorporate what is known as a pinch point. These plot elements up the ante and make things personal for your protagonist and supporting staff. The subplot can elaborate on these pinch points and therefore take your readers on a rollercoaster ride of emotions.
For example, if the antagonist kills a loved one of your protagonist in the main plot, the subplot could explore how the antagonist’s henchmen steal the loved one’s body. This heinous act prevents the protagonist from giving their loved one a proper burial, thereby getting the necessary closure. Nothing is more personal than desecrating the remains of a loved one.
Develop and Explore Theme
The fourth reason for subplot is to develop and explore the theme. The theme in a story is its underlying message or ‘big idea. However, remember not to use too many theme subplots for different theme ideas unless you are writing literary fiction and well versed in the techniques. Try stick to one main idea that you try to build on.
For example, the central theme of your story might be Power and Corruption. Your protagonist is rising is an idealist who is rising quickly through the ranks of his organisation. She swears by all that is holy to clean the system from the inside, but as she climbs the organisation’s hierarchy, she becomes more corrupted.
Our subplot can explore why power corrupts your character. A daunting crisis could emerge, forcing your character to compromise on her values a little. The result could be that she makes significant progress in helping her community and at the same time, rises in power. She realises she can rise further if she compromises a little more, and in so doing, she can help a lot more people. The ends justify the means, or do they?
Provide Context and Background
The fifth reason for subplot is to provide additional context and background. Readers fall in love with worlds; they are allowed to explore and come to know well. The main plot may introduce this world and its rules to your readers, but the subplot will give them a chance to explore a specific aspect in substantial detail.
For example, the main plot may introduce a world of magic filled with witches and warlocks. The subplot could illustrate your character going to a festival to celebrate the 100th birthday of the first warlock who united the magical world. The reader will explore the strange rituals and customs observed my magic-folk, including aspects like travelling, architecture, art, recreational activities, clothing, food, and the list goes on. We all want to feel as though we belong. This technique will scratch that primordial itch.
The sixth and final reason fro subplot is to provide relief. This reason is especially essential where you have too much of one thing because balance and counterbalance are essential in storytelling. If your narrative is serious and intense, you need comedic relief. Alternatively, if your story is action-packed, you need to give your readers (and characters) a chance to catch their breath and reflect on the events so far.
For example, consider a high-flying spy thriller. Your handsome hero is under constant threat. He survives, torture, double-crosses, shoot-outs, and romantic entanglements. Don’t jump him straight into the next series of unfortunate events without giving him a chance to visit the orphanage in which he was raised. Allow him an opportunity to sit and have a quiet cup of tea with the nun who raised him, and who he sees as his mother figure. Let them laugh and cry and hug it out. Here you show your tough guy has a softer side, but he also likes to get some R&R like a normal human being. Even the terminator has to power down at some point.
What are the Different Types of Subplot?
Everyone knows what an origin story is. It is how your character became who he or she is today. This can serve to characterise but can also provide relief, explore the theme, and provide additional context. Fling us back into your protagonist’s past and show us a critical milestone that leads to the swashbuckling gunslinger we see today.
The most popular subplot is the love story. However, this does not have to be a romantic love story. It could involve pets, hobbies, people, friends, colleagues, or of course, romantic interests. These subplots often introduce conflict and complication, which builds tension, but may characterise. Excuse the clich?, but let your imagination run wild.
This subplot type shows growth or regression, both past and present in your character. If it is the past transformation it characterises, if it is the present transformation, it drives your plot forward and can help develop your theme.
Similar to your character’s origin story is the back story. This doesn’t show the protagonist’s origin, but rather something from the past, distant or recent. They help further characterise and reveal who the character is today.
The side story deviates from the main plot predominantly to provide the much-needed relief we spoke about earlier. These are complete tangents that don’t drive the story forward but decelerate it, so the reader catches their breath. Again, use this technique sparingly, you don’t want your story coming to a grinding halt. Instead, you just want to get a water break before you jump back into the action.
Moral of the Story
The moral of the story type subplots take the reader on thematic explorations of the human condition and either develop or build on the overarching theme of the story. These usually end in a moral which ties into the more significant theme and spur the protagonist on towards their overarching plot goal, good or bad.
How to Write Subplot?
We have come along way and are nearly masters of subplot, but we have one last thing to learn: how actually to write them? This part is the easiest if you have understood everything up until now and if you have planned your plot out well using the principles we learnt about in previous weeks.
There are three vehicles for driving your subplot:
One of the simplest ways to introduce a subplot is through a flashback. Check out Jenna Moreci’s video on How to Write Flashbacks. The key here is to use them sparingly, keep them short and to make it impactful.
Another way to introduce subplot is through deviations. Use a triggering event that has your protagonist or one of the supporting characters deviate from the main plot. An example is, your protagonist bumping into a romantic interest which triggers a romantic subplot. Their relationship is essential to the main plot but is not what the main story is about. It adds depth and colour to your story.
The final vehicle for executing a subplot is using a dream. The dream could be a flashback or could be a metaphysical journey during which your character learns something extraordinary about their goal or themselves. Again, a subplot has to be essential to the main plot. A great example from literature is the dreams Harry Potter has which reveal his character or demonstrate what Voldemort is doing in the Half-Blood Prince. This is a powerful technique if used well, therefore remember to use it sparingly and effectively.
Subplot: The Big Idea
In summary, the subplot is a parallel story that characterises, creates tension, provides further context and ultimately, adds layers to your story. There are various types of subplots which you can deploy using flashbacks, deviations or dreams. However, the subplot is a powerful device better used sparingly. If they are not essential to your plot, they leave them out. When well-executed, they will transform your story into a multi-layered narrative that leaves readers wanting more.
For more content on plot, check out my blog or if you prefer audio learning, check out my podcast. I share tips and tricks on how to help aspiring authors write their best works yet. If you liked this article, subscribe to my blog to get the latest updates. There is more where this came from. Now that you know how to wield the magic of subplot go forth and create some that magic.