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.
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.
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?