What Is a Subplot?

 
By: 
J. M. Frey
November 17, 2021

Welcome to a new article series! This time, we’ll be talking about about the structural and narrative importance of SUBPLOTS. But before we dive in, let’s figure out what a subplot actually is.

According to Dictionary.com, a subplot is:

"A secondary or subordinate plot, as in a play, novel, or other literary work; underplot.”

Great, so to know what a ‘subplot’ is, you also need to understand what a plot is.

That same dictionary says:

"Also called storyline, a plot is the plan, scheme, or main story of a literary or dramatic work, as a play, novel, or short story.”

A plot, therefore, is the map that your storyline follows. The term covers both the beat-by-beat, scene-by-scene events as they happen, but also the overarching structure of the narrative. A plot includes both the minutiae and the big picture. The characters are the people who experience the plot, the setting is the place where the plot takes place, and the themes are the greater philosophical issues that your plot encourages your reader to think about and examine as Stuff Happens.

A subplot is the part of the story that is happening — to your characters, in the world, both beat-by-beat and overarching — in tandem with the main plot. 

What does a subplot do?

So, subplots support the main plot, usually tieing into it in some way, and they are generally resolved at the same time. However, they can also juxtapose the main plot, act inversely to it, or negatively affect it. Subplots can either intentionally or accidentally mess up a main plot, throwing a spanner in your main character’s works. Or a subplot can fix an issue in the main plot, providing a solution for a crisis point at exactly the right moment in a deus ex machina. Subplots also provide you, the writer, places to highlight or dig into the themes of the novel, to provide greater depth to a secondary character, or to provide greater explanation and understanding for the worldbuilding featured in the main plot.

More than anything, subplots exist to keep the story interesting and engaging. 

How do they work together?

A great way to understand how subplots weave together to create the tapestry of the story is to think of your favourite procedural television show. Let’s take House M.D. for example.

  • In the main plot, Plot A, a patient arrives at the hospital with a mysterious illness, which Dr. House and his team must identify and cure by the end of the episode.
  • In the subplot, Subplot B, the ongoing interpersonal or romantic tension between members of House’s team evolves, which ends up either aiding or hindering their ability to find the solution to the mystery in Plot A.
  • In another subplot, Subplot C, House is either in conflict or cahoots with his best friend, Dr. Wilson, in a series of smaller events that reflect and add depth or complexity to the themes established in Plot A. 

In summary, subplots:

  • Relieve reader fatigue that comes from following just one character or narrative.
  • Help in driving the main plot forward.
  • Increase tension and conflict between characters.
  • Increase tension and conflict at the crisis points of the main plot.
  • Provide a stage for secondary characters to develop.
  • Provide an opportunity to reinforce or highlight the themes of the novel.
  • Provide a place for the elaborate worldbuilding in the mail plot to receive explanation.

And of course, a good subplot will do more than just one of these things at a time. Make sure every scene you write does double or triple duty, where possible.

Activity

Think about your favorite long-running tv or streaming series, one with the same main characters who have to tackle a different problem in each episode. Choose an episode you like. What is the main plot? What happens and what characters are involved? Without talking about the action, how would you explain what the main plot is about? Is it about love? A certain type of human relationship? The choices people make?

Once you're comfortable with the main plot's features, start thinking about all the other things that happen in the episode that don't seem to be related, or that are only revealed to be related at the end. Are some of the characters chasing another problem that later resolves the main issue? Is something going on that allows you to explore a character's mental state in a way the main plot won't? What would the episode look like if the subplot were removed? Would it still work?