Linear Structure: Subplot

Mech Heart HiRes copy 2

A subplot is a smaller story within the main plot.

Every subplot is a story with a protagonist and an antagonist (not necessarily the protagonist and antagonist of the main plot) who are in a struggle to achieve their goals. The difference between the main plot and the subplot is that the main plot is the story that the reader invests in; the subplot is a shorter story that supports and adds layers to the main plot.

One way subplots serve the main plot is in echoing its theme or conflict; another is serving as a foil to the main plot by contrasting with it. But a subplot has to do more than subtext, it also has to materially influence the main plot.

Subplots should be plotted in the same way as the main plot with the subplot scenes (usually those scenes with the subplot protagonist as the POV character) distributed evenly across the acts, beginning after the main plot has been introduced and ending before the main plot ends, often in the third act as the subplot merges completely with the main plot. (See Merging Plot and Subplot on Argh Ink for more explanation.)

EXAMPLE: Remember Jane, the tightrope walker who wanted to be queen of the circus but was attacked by bats, a Nopefish, and a bomb? That was the main plot:

 

Jane's Master Plot

But if we look at Jane’s plot in detail, we can see there’s a subplot that serves it so well that it can’t be removed from her story:
Act One

00005-Wake Up Call

Act Two

Act Three

Act Four

Resolution

The Nopefish’s subplot echoes Jane’s plot in theme: they both let fear hold them back. It also contrasts with Jane’s plot because Jane works to overcome her fear while the Nopefish lets his fear rule him. But the most important thing about the Nopefish’s subplot is how integral it is to Jane’s plot. It’s Jane’s story, but Jane’s story would be impossible without the Nopefish’s secondary story.

A subplot’s first purpose is to serve the main plot, but it should be a compelling story on its own.

Troubleshooting If your story seems overlong and unfocused, try taking your subplots out one at a time and looking at your story as a whole again. Any subplot that can be removed from the story without affecting the main plot should be cut; your story will feel more unified without it.

For other posts in this unit, see The Structure Unit Table of Contents.

12 thoughts on “Linear Structure: Subplot

  1. carolc says:

    Perfect! I know I sound like a broken record, but here I go again – this explanation makes sense. The examples are key for me, and the troubleshooting tip on this one was a light bulb moment. Thanks, Jenny!

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    • I wasn’t sure about the examples. For one thing, they’re ludicrous, but they’re also kind of elaborate. The problem is, subplots are elaborate, so I’m kind of stuck.

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      • carolc says:

        No, no. There’s just enough detail to be clear, without so much it becomes confusing. I’ve never seen an explanation of subplots that made so much sense.

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  2. This is a fabulous explanation. I’ve been fuzzy about why some of the people are showing up in my stories. Now I have a clearer picture of what to do when I go back and evaluate. Having a plan to analyze it _later_ helps me relax during the drafting stage.

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  3. I’m a fan of using your books as examples but here the tightrope walker and the Nopefish works really well. Because the example is so out there, it’s also really clear. Like someone wearing neon clothes with arrow jewelry. And I need that, so thanks:)

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  4. Well explained. Think the subplot feeding the main plot is key.

    Do think there are stories out there, though, where the subplot (or subplot characters) can overshadow or just plain be more interesting than the main plot. Not necessarily a case of the subplot overfeeding the main plot, just outshining it.

    When that happens, I often wonder how the writer could have fixed it. Or if maybe it was a sign he or she just fell for the subplot more somewhere along the line. Or maybe created two main plots with one just masquerading as a subplot. Either way, a bit of a related but different challenge I think when it comes to subplot troubleshooting.

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    • Peggy Larkin says:

      I think sometimes the subplot’s more interesting because the characters are more attractive/compelling/interesting–like here, perhaps I pity the nopefish but am just not that interested in wimpy Jane, whose fear is holding her back. (I often find that if I have trouble connecting to the protagonist, that’s when the subplots start to interest me more than the main plot.)

      I’m working on a story that could use some subplots, so now I’m off to go figure out what they might be.

      As usual, this website has inspired me and it’s back to the drawing board with my newfound knowledge! Thanks, Jenny!

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    • I think writers tend not to over-think subplots. The main plot carries so much weight that we tend to play it safe, but in the subplot, there’s a lot more room to swing. A romantic subplot doesn’t have to have a happy ending. A subplot protagonist doesn’t have to fascinate the reader. A subplot antagonist doesn’t have to shape an entire novel. Lots more freedom.

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