Tighten Thy Subplots

Subplots are subordinate plots weaved into a story to enrich the reader’s experience. Not to increase wordcount, or stick some personal vendetta into an otherwise unsuspecting story, and for crying out loud pleeease not to shoot the reader point-blank between the eyes with An Important Point you itch to make. Subplots exist only to make a story richer and provide depth, add some umph and kick, some pow and a couple of oh-my-gawds, you know, give it some curves and a nice hair-style, not infect her with an alien virus that has her turn into Cthuhu by the third act.

Subplots come in different shapes and sizes, and should you decide to have one or two in your novel, here’s what you oughta consider.

First the unbreakable rule of writing subplots:

Each episode of a subplot must reveal something that affects the reader’s understanding of the main plot from there on out.

There’s no breaking of this law without running a high—and I mean skyscraper high, Burj Al Arab on an anti-gravity platform kind of high—risk to brilliantly fuck up your story. For every example of a novel successfully breaking that rule, there’s at least a gadzillion others who landed in a paper-shredder instead. So don’t even think about it.

No.

Fine. If you must break that rule, at least stick to the corollary:

Each episode of a subplot must contain a critical piece of information that can not be effectively revealed any other way.

That critical info mustn’t necessarily pertain to the main plot right that instant, but it must be absolutely relevant to the characters, the storyworld or the demonstration of the story hypothesis, more commonly known as theme.

Right. Now on to discussing the types of subplots we have to choose from.

 

1. The protagonist leads the subplot

a) In the pursuit of a secondary goal

This is usually where the pursuit of a romantic interest fits in with the major story-line. Also, a mini-quest the protagonist has to go on while he’s keeping his eye on the big prize. Or some personal agenda he’s following in parallel to the big mission of the plot that the story is actually built around.

b) In an alternate timeline

This type of subplot is usually built out of flashbacks, memories, dreams, or even actual jumps through time—like showing the protagonist in the future, after the story’s question is answered—and it always has an internal structure, a backbone, an own plot thread. While having occasional flashbacks in a story is fine, having a flashback subplot, meaning a small story unfolding in a series of flashbacks in order to reveal something about the protagonist’s past, always requires a strong internal logic and it must be absolutely relevant to the understanding of the current story. If it fails in these two aspects, it fails, period.

Because flashbacks, memories and dreams always interrupt the main story’s tension, they must matter to the immediately following scene or answer a previous question, otherwise all they will accomplish is to kill suspense and offer a great opportunity to dump the book for the latest episode of Mythbusters.

 

2. Another character leads the subplot

a) The antagonist’s tale

This type of subplot can offer awesome depth to the story, but it also seriously amplifies all the pitfalls of creating compelling antagonists a thousandfold. As long as we work well to avoid these sons-of-bitches, we’re on to a jewel of a subplot:

– the antagonist is more interesting than the protagonist, and his subplot kicks the main plot’s ass
– the antagonist is unilateral (pure evil for the sake of who-the-fuck-cares) and his subplot is just aiming the spotlight at booooring
– the subplot reads like a contrived, stale, clichéd justification of why the antagonist is such a mean party-pooper
– the subplot reads like a contrived, stale, clichéd testimony of why the evil Overlord is in fact a tormented, sad, sad kid

b) The sidekick’s tale

The most common and largely preferred type of subplot is the one where a secondary character pursues his own little goal, and in the process reveals a different perspective on the protagonist and the story’s main plot. This works so well because it always has an enriching function, and gives the reader a nice breather from being in the protagonist’s head.

The major pitfall with this one is that the secondary character casts an unintentionally unfavorable light on the protagonist. This can happen, for example, when the protagonist’s motivation to pursue the story goal is questioned, and not answered satisfactorily.

c) Unrelated

This type of subplot is following a thread that does not mix with the story plot in any direct way. It’s usually employed in epic fantasy or epic-sized science-fiction stories, with the main purpose to reveal the workings of the storyworld or its history. They affect the reader’s understanding of the story or the characters’ motivations, and offer a sense of placement and grand scheme of things, but they don’t affect the protagonist or antagonist in any direct and immediate way.

Such subplots usually show circumstances that are removed in space and / or time but which affect the story’s setting; aspects of the storyworld that would be too tiresome to include in the actual plot (a good way to sneak in some info-dump material, but with an own little story to ease it down the reader’s throat), or to showcase the creation of obstacles for the protagonist. They can also be used to offer a different perspective on the story theme, one that would alter the main plot too greatly if lived through by the protagonist.

It’s rare, but it can work wonders. Equally high are the risks.  Because episodes of an unrelated subplot immediately stop the main plot cold, they must be written in such a way as to not confuse, not derail and not annoy under any circumstance. Here’s where voice, style and awesome mastery of storytelling come into play, and boy must they shine.

 

I’m sure you’ve thought of several good and bad examples while reading these subplot types, both from works you’ve read and from your own. I use the antagonist and secondary character centered subplot types in my WIP. I also really enjoy reading weird time-jump subplots, though I haven’t yet attempted to write one.

Which one’s your favorite type, either because you use it or love to read it?

 

14 Replies to “Tighten Thy Subplots”

    1. I fish it out of the thick and critter-infested swamps of my mind, where everything I’ve ever assimilated ferments happily into a fertile mush.

      Thanks, Mike. 🙂

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  1. Oh, love the opening lines “Subplots are subordinate plots weaved into a story to enrich the reader’s experience. Not to increase word count…” Hallelujah. I hate it when authors pad out their works with back story or subplots that are really just fillers. Kills the story.

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  2. This is why I write in 3rd person limited. I can give your the intimacy of 1st person, but I can give your the story from various view points. For example, I like my antagonists to me three-dimensional. The only way to do that is to tell their story.

    Having subplots that weave together is the reason I started outlining and plotting. Have to keep them all straight!

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    1. 3rd person limited definitely has its advantages, that’s true, Jay. And writing a story with subplots without planning ahead is suicide. 🙂 I couldn’t imagine doing it.

      Thanks for stopping by to comment!

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  3. Subplots have always been a huge source of paranoia for me. Whenever I’m working on something with subplots (which there’s not as much pressure to do in the short space, of course), they’re almost always a chief worry of mine. Am I getting this right? Is this too much? Not enough? Does this even matter? Would I want to read this? By the gods, IS THIS EVEN GOOD?

    Subplots are one of the main reasons it’s pretty important to read your ass off, too. I don’t know if I can think of a single aspect of novels that there is a wider spectrum of hits and misses on out there. You can learn a lot by examining subplot threads in published work, good and bad.

    Excellent post again, Vero. Well done.

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    1. Hm, wouldn’t have thought you got paranoid about stuff, James. 😀 But I see why subplots are scary. My biggest problem is how detailed they can be before they are too detailed, and when in the world is the best moment to switch to a subplot?!

      Reading other novels with subplots helps, most definitely. It trains our eye on the right amounts and timings.

      Thanks for the comment, as always! 🙂

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  4. Hiya Vero. 🙂
    Dear lord, here I go repeating myself…. excellent blog post! Yes, yes, and more yeses.
    You hit every nail on the head. *whack whack whack!*
    Now, since I haven’t had coffee in 24 hours – pretty much a sign of the apocalypse – I’m going to keep my comment short. I’ll just say… I’ve done the sidekick subplot (fun!); haven’t done the antagonist subplot in my current WIP (wouldn’t work) – but have went that way before and got into it; and have an alternate timeline subplot in my WIP. THAT’s a tricky one. Although beta readers thought it worked, I always hear a little voice whispering in my brain:
    Beware the infodump! 😀
    Miss you and all the other fan-freakin-tastic writer peeps online. Someday I hope to return.
    Until then, send coffee. 😉

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    1. Thank you, Tracy!

      Alternate timelines are indeed hard to track and keep connected to the main plot. But I think the work is worth it.

      Miss you too! Hope all is well, now that you’ve got… coffee –> (>^_^)>c(_)

      Like

  5. Hi,
    its a great post but my question is how does it matter even if its useless subplot or the one vital to the story as long as it is entertaining and interesting???

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    1. If I understand you correctly (and I’m not sure about that, to be honest…) then you’re right, subplots need to be interesting regardless of how crucial they are to the plot, but they can’t be interesting unless they affect the main plot one way or another. If a subplot has no impact on the main plot, then it’s merely a diversion, and the reader feels like his attention was wasted and you’ve played tricks with him or just wanted to get some bulk to your story, which is not advisable. Make subplots interesting, but make them IMPORTANT to the plot as well, then you’re good to go. 🙂

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