On Sub-Plotting

As promised in my last Post on serving the story, here are my thoughts on sub-plots.



Subplots have been beguiling me for a while, the topic proving more confusing than I first thought! As always I don’t really consider these posts on authority on any topic, but rather my attempts to make sense of them – so let me know your thoughts too and maybe together we can work out what works/doesn’t.

My first problem was trying to really define what a subplot is. I mean sure it seems obvious, so obvious in fact that even non-writer folks could probably tell me. But the more I think about it the more I find myself questioning what counts as ‘sub’plot and what counts as plain old ‘plot’plot

(plot, plot, plot, say it over and over till it loses meaning)

For example do alternating points of view in say epic fantasy count as subplots? Does action indirectly related to the main-plot count? What about the often meandering path that a main character takes to get through a plot, which parts are considered sub?

I finally settled on a definition this afternoon which is probably going to be a bit geeky but here goes:

“A subplot is a story arc that isn’t directly or contextually related to the main plot, but enhances the subtext of the story.”

I’ve kind of excluded segments of a main plot, that are from a practical point of view, vital to the plot (which some still consider a subplot but hey I had to draw a line somewhere otherwise my head hurts)

Before we go any further I want to address one question buzzing in my head on the topic:

Do novels need subplots?

After stewing for a while my thought is “not necessarily” but there are many advantages to including a subplot or two or six for a novel-length story:

  • They can provide some breathing space – a plot that drives forwards constantly can be oddly boring. It’s a risk that a reader may get distracted with two many threads, but equally imagine Lord of the Rings if we only followed Frodo from whoa to go into Mordor
  • Subplots can help communicate themes and ideas, making a statement feel more generalized rather than just a one off issue. For example if a minor characters story mirrors the MC showing redemption through hard work (just don’t beat the reader over the head with a message)
  • Finally subplots may help ground and ‘authenticate’ a story but making the world and characters feel more fleshed out and real. Another flaw of a relentlessly progressing plot is that it can feel very fictional and fake.

An important second question about subplots however is how to get away with them without just distracting from the story, or adding fluff and filler?

My first thought is to ensure that there is enough connection between plots arcs. Based on good examples this seems to be done by:

  • Exploring the main character(s) further with somewhat related themes. This can be a bit of double edged sword, I suspect from authors hope that readers have such love and interest for their character than any such exploration and development will be enjoyed, however I think its important for the development to still relate to the main story. An example would be Aragon’s ‘love triangle’ in Lord of the Rings. While not hugely significant to the overarching storyline, how Aragon relates to people is relevant to his confidence as the Returning King and for Eowyn her choices as a vital player in the story.
  • Exploring secondary characters’ storylines. Similar to above I think this can backfire, one wants to pursue threads that colour the whole tapestry not just hand out randomly away from the piece.
  • Finally a subplot might be a brief exploration of ‘other’ choices what an MC might make, like Spiderman decides to give up being Spidey for a while. Often this will relate to the overall plot, but could also fit my definition.

My final thoughts were around what are some bad moves when it comes to subplots:

  • Anything that simply distracts from the main plot. Tension is fun to draw out, but readers don’t tend to tolerate following an arc that doesn’t move the plot anywhere. Not to be too critical but I felt in the second series of Marvel’s Daredevil the two plot threads acting more as distractions from each other than complimentary.
  • Pointless or random actions that don’t bring anything to the story on any level
  • Subplots that risk overshadowing the main-plot

I think one of the reasons I’ve been struggling with this topic is that the best examples are stories that seamlessly weave together multiple storylines blurring the gap between plot and subplot, which while brilliant makes it a little hard to study the topic!

Well thats all for today – what are your thoughts on subplots? do you have any brilliant examples, or perhaps some dungers worth sharing as a cautionary tale?


2 thoughts on “On Sub-Plotting

  1. I think I would define subplots as any plot that is resolved within the context of the larger story. It could, of course, be a disconnected subplot like a love story, but in my mind, it doesn’t have to be. It can indeed be related directly to the main plot. For example, let’s say your very generic fantasy plot is “young boy helps the struggling common folk overthrow a despotic king and thusly becomes king himself.” A subplot might be “boy must find a magic sword, and does.” This subplot may take several chapters. Another subplot might be “boy helps old village lady with her problem, learning something about the peoples’ suffering, and himself.” This plot may take only one or two chapters, or less. Anyways, that’s what I imagine subplots to be. I am not expert either.

    Liked by 1 person

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