One of the last lessons that my writing course covered was the tricky issue of subplots. Now, I assumed I knew what I was doing with them on an instinctive level but, once I started thinking about it, I realised that I had never in fact properly thought about it. D’oh.
You don’t have to have subplots but they do add a lot to the story. They provide additional content, flavour and perspective. They give the stories of characters who aren’t the protagonist, with different motivations and themes. They add conflict to the main story through interference, obstruction, competition, negative coincidence and so on. Sometimes the trick is working out which is the main plot and which are the subplots, if they are given equal weighting and screentime.
So what is a subplot? Wikipedia defines them as
‘a secondary strand of the plot that is a supporting side story for any story or the main plot. Subplots may connect to main plots, in either time and place or in thematic significance. Subplots are distinguished from the main plot by taking up less of the action, having less significant events occur, with less impact on the ‘world’ of the work, and occurring to less important characters.’
The interesting word in there, for me, is ‘may’. They don’t have to connect to main plots but readers tend to expect that they will. Take Cloud Atlas, for example – a book made almost entirely of subplots. A significant proportion of the enjoyment of the story is to see where the connections between those subplots are. It works because the reader trusts that they will connect. This is also a genre expectation of crime and mystery stories, where all the seemingly unconnected threads create a single tapestry at the end. If that isn’t the case, the reader is generally dissatisfied.
As to what kind of topic subplots can cover, the options are as varied as those of the main plot. Possibly more so, in fact. In the 2009 film The Road, the main plot is one of survival – a man and his son trying to stay alive. That’s quite a simple story which focuses on the details of the day-to-day. One of the subplots – how the world got into this post-apocalyptic state – gives the audience some history and context as a backdrop and stimulus for the main story. Major world events, politics, natural disasters, minor character story arcs, explorations of philosophy – these are all valid fodder for subplots. They can be used to enhance or provide opposition to the main plot; they can be used to world-build or character-build. Whatever the story needs which the main plot isn’t necessarily providing.
The other thing to consider is pacing. We intrinsically want symmetry and balance in a story. Giving a subplot in one big lump at the beginning and another near the end is clumsy and unsatisfying. The reader will have forgotten or lost the emotional investment they had in that particular story – you need to thread it through in a regular fashion. The aesthetic principle is important. A good way to manage this is by drawing the timeline of your story and marking off the major events of the main plot, then the screentime of the subplot. This will show you both whether the balance between plot and subplot is right – whether you’re giving too much screentime to one at the expense of the other – and also whether the pacing works. Here’s my example from Corpus:
See how both the main and subplots interweave in terms of time, and have symmetry in terms of content? Alternatively, if your plots are both about character development, draw the character arcs and see if they compliment each other. Another Corpus example:
Essentially both characters start by following the same path, but at a crucial stage they choose different ways to react and that creates both conflict and symmetry whilst providing the reader with different perspectives. Without showing the subplot of the antagonist’s character arc, you wouldn’t get that conflict or range of viewpoint.
Drawing plot/subplot maps is a really useful exercise to clarify to yourself how the pieces of your story fit together. If anyone’s willing to share, I’d love to see the results in the comments below!