What is a subplot and why is it important?

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Rope as a metaphor for narrative and why subplots are important

Last week we talked about plot and how you can use it to make your story unputdownable. So this week I thought we’d continue on that topic and take a closer look at subplot.

SEE ALSO: The plot thickens – how to use plot and structure to make your book unputdownable

First of all though, what is a subplot?

A subplot is a secondary strand of the plot. It adds texture, interest and dimension to your main story.

To explain it, I’ve heard writers use the metaphor of narrative as a piece of rope. The rope is actually made up of smaller strands braided together to create a whole. This is similar to how your subplots weave together around the main plot supporting themes and characterisation.

An important thing to note is that while subplots are intertwined with each other and the main plot they are still distinct. Think of it this way, by not having one of the strands in a length of rope you wouldn’t ruin it, however you would weaken it.

If you keep this in mind there are a number of ways in which you can distinguish subplots from the main plot. Some examples are:

  • They take up less of the action.
  • Often involve supporting characters and can actually be told from one of these characters’ perspectives in a novel with multiple POVs.
  • Will fall between the ‘bookends’ of the main plot. This main plot will both begin and end your novel.
  • Have less impact on the story’s ‘world’.
  • Are made up of less significant events than the main plot.
  • Support the main plot by reinforcing it, helping to create characterisation

The ONLY four reasons to include a subplot

In the Toni Jordan class that I discussed in last week’s blog, she gave us examples of four kinds of subplot and said if yours wasn’t doing one of these things then it didn’t need to be there.

  1. Ironical subplot to create a two pronged ending. Toni Jordan gave the example of Pride and Prejudice with the ironical subplot being the elopement of Lydia and Mr Wickham as a contrast to the marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy.
  2. Reinforcing subplot which has the same tonal ending as the main plot. Again using Pride and Prejudice as an example we could look at the way Jane and Mr Bingley’s relationship actually reinforces Elizabeth and Darcy’s.
  3. A subplot that runs prior to the main plot if you have a late inciting incident. The subplot must reveal information that it is important for the audience to have before they are presented with the inciting incident for example in Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, the story begins in London and it is not until the main character is transported to Australia that the inciting incident occurs (a good way into the story). However, because of the horrendous things this protagonist does we needed to see where he came from in order to understand his future motivations.
  4. A complication subplot, which increases pressure on the characters, namely the protagonist.

According to Jordan, writers should be careful of using flashback as a subplot, ‘rather it is better to use it as a pacing tool.’

Use your subplot to:

  • Explore themes
  • Add to characterisation
  • Make your novel more substantial
  • Give a different perspective
  • Keep up the pace or slow it down
  • Add variety to the novel eg comic relief to a sad story or a reflective quality to an action packed novel 

Let’s look at some examples

I’m going to use Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as the example again to keep it consistent with last week’s post. In this novel the subplots include:

  • The development of a friendship between Harry and his two best friends and the subplot of the Mirror of Erised demonstrate Harry’s desire for family and belonging which reinforces the ending when he realises Hogwarts is his home and the people he has met there are his family.
  • Hagrid’s dragon. A complication subplot, Hagrid’s dragon see’s Harry thrown into trouble at school, further creates antagonism with Malfoy and is completely tied up with the plot to steal the philosopher’s stone.
  • The subplot that sees Harry becoming Griffindor’s Quiddich Seeker highlights the antagonism between Slytherin and the rest of the witches and wizards at Hogwarts, reinforcing the future antagonism between muggle born witches and wizards and pure blood advocates.
  • The developing competition between Harry and Draco Malfoy is a reinforcing subplot similar to the one above.

So how does point of view (POV) affect subplot?

SEE ALSO: What is a writing voice & how you can find yours

If you have more than one viewpoint character in your novel then each character will bring more subplots to the story.

If the characters’ stories all carry the same weight then each character will have their own plot. If there is still only one main character then each of the supporting characters with a POV will simply interweave new subplots around the main character’s plot.

How do I get a handle on all these plots?

Once you finish writing your novel it’s time to pull it apart again! What I mean is that now you have all the ‘natural’ subplots that simply come out by writing freely, you need to have a look at each of them, see how they support the main plot and further emphasise this so they become more tightly entwined in the story.

While doing this you also need to make sure your main plot is always at the centre of things so it’s good to place the subplot scenes into the gaps of main plot. That way when the story begins to slow down you winch it back up with the subplot. There will probably be a lot of switching around and merging, altering and unfortunately deleting at this point, but it will make it a better novel in the end!

A great example of subplot is the storyline of Hagrid’s dragon in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. This subplot does so many things:

  1. Firstly it helps to continue the friendships between Harry, Ron, Hermione and Hagrid.
  2. It exacerbates the antagonism between Malfoy and Harry when Malfoy follows him to Hagrid’s and reports the friends to Professor McGonagall.
  3. It leads to Harry’s first encounter with the ‘shadow’ of Voldemort feeding on the unicorns in the forest so he realises the stone is being stolen to bring the Dark wizard back.
  4. Finally when Hagrid reveals he told the person who gave him the dragon about Fluffy (who guards the trap door to the stone), Harry realises someone is planning to steal it in the immediate future.

By looking at a subplot as it’s own mini novel you can ensure that the story, as a whole, is weaving together tightly and neatly together to create that piece of rope. At each point in the story a loop will come to the forefront and then switch with another creating momentum and interest within your narrative, you just need to make sure that they are all wrapped around that main plot and headed in the same direction.

Is there a story you know of with a great subplot? Why do you think a subplot should be added to a story? Let me know in the comments.

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