Warning! Today's post is going to be both technical and opinionated. If you disagree with how I treat subplots in my work, that is entirely your right. You do you! But if you're interested in seeing how I think about/manage/plan the subplots in my books, stick with me, 'cause shit's about to get specific!
Ready? Let's go!
Writing Wednesday: How to Write a Subplot
|It doesn't have to be this complicated, but it can be if that's your jam...|
(All credits to XKCD! See the original graph in all its high resolution glory here.)
“Subplot” is one of those writing vocab words that a lot of people toss around, but I’m not sure many writers actually know what it means.
Technically, a subplot is any storyline that happens in a book that is not the main plot. These can include romantic subplots, which are love stories in books that aren’t actually Romances (where the romance is the main plot). Character subplots, which happen when a secondary character is having their own plot line in addition to the novel’s main plot, (like Marci’s gangster problems in Nice Dragons Finish Last). Also popular are setting subplots, which are story lines that run simultaneous to the main plot in the wider setting of the novel, but are not (or, at least, not in the beginning) actually part of the main story. A good example of a setting subplot would be a Fantasy novel where where the protagonist is ostensibly doing his own thing, but the author keeps mentioning a brewing war or political struggle in the background. These mentions are often disguised as exposition or worldbuiling until, all of a sudden, the budding war/political conflict bursts into the main plot with a vengeance, forcing the main characters to deal with new problems.
These are just a few examples of common subplots you find in genre fiction, but really, any story thread that exists on its own merit outside of the book's main plot can be a subplot. Note that “outside” here doesn’t mean the subplot is isolated from the main plot, because a good subplot always comes back around to be an important factor in the main plot or the novel or the series.
Why is this? Well, I try never to set down hard rules in my writing, mostly because the moment I say “X is always true,” I’ll instantly find five books that fly in the face of whatever I just said. But speaking practically for the vast majority of successful novels, it’s pretty much impossible to have a subplot that exists purely its own sake and never ties into the main plot without the storyline in question feeling disconnected and superfluous. Because, you know, it is.
So if subplots must reconnect with the main plot as a general rule, why bother with them at all? Why not just wrap everything into the main plot from the start and call it a day? Well, you can definitely do that, and many authors do, but ignoring the subplot mechanic in writing cuts you off from an enormous world of complexity in your stories. This is because, while the purpose of the subplot isn’t to stand on its own, the introduction of plots outside of your main story opens up new avenues that you as a writer can use to show viewpoints and events your main story might otherwise never touch.
When you cut it down to the bare bones, a main plot standing by itself is often relatively simple. Even if you're dealing with a very complex plot or world, there’s only so much a main character can get their hands into before things just get too complicated and the plot turns to soup. Subplots are a way to get around this limitation. By introducing a new story thread that runs parallel with your main plot, you are free to introduce all kinds of new situations, events, threats, world building, and other extremely interesting story stuff that might otherwise be beyond the realistic limits of your central story.