We all know subplots have their place. And we know finding that place can be difficult.
- They have to be intriguing and interesting without taking away from the main plot.
- They need to accomplish as much as possible within a limited number of words allocated.
When you want to embellish and expand upon aspects of your story, the most important things in your story are what probably deserve that attention. That means your major story arc.
One thing that might bring reviewers to state “the story bored me” or “the story dragged on” is when an author equally embellishes subplots and a main plot. Think about it: the main plot should have something to distinguish it from subplots, right? Something to mark it as the main plot?
This doesn’t mean subplots should be poorly written, of course. It means there is a certain depth of description and attention that is appropriate in a main plot that may–may, depending on your individual style and story–be overkill in your subplots.
That said, what are some other ways subplots can interweave to form a support structure that strengthens the complexity of your story and the quality of your writing?
SUBPLOTS SHOULD HAVE SOME IMPACT ON THE MAIN PLOT
Now, that impact can be indirect…. Maybe a subplot largely concerns character C, who is important in the life of character B as a business contact. Their interactions impact the connection between the protagonist (character A) and character B, who is up in the air about whether to throw needed support behind character A.
See? The impact of the subplot above on character A and the main story arc is largely indirect. Character C doesn’t even have to know that character A exists. Character B provides a link that connects character C’s subplot with the main story and thus gives the reader an obvious reason to care about character C’s relationship with character B.
This kind of an indirect connection is a form of story structure that is defensible, logical, and often used in stories. It will impact readers one of two ways:
- It can provide a nice breather from the main story arc, a fun change of pace due to the new character(s) involved and perhaps a shift in tone and setting.
- It can annoy readers who for whatever reason don’t like the interruption, the content of the subplot, and/or the new character(s) and would prefer to get back to the main plot.
I sometimes felt this way about Hagrid’s subplots when reading the Harry Potter books. But I loved the Harry Potter books nothing less for that. You see, the brilliance of this kind of structure is that, even when readers don’t really connect with the subplot, they understand why it’s there.
They can see the indirect link between the subplot and the main plot, and they understand that this scene or chapter that they don’t like as much as others will impact the storyline they are invested in.
I didn’t care for Hagrid’s stories as much as for other subplots and the major plots of J.K. Rowling’s series, but I always knew Hagrid’s bumbles and mistakes, as well as his unwavering loyalty and bravery, would throw some kind of twist in the development of the story.
That knowledge kept me invested in Hagrid’s (mis)adventures concerning dragons, huge spiders, and giants.
YOU CAN STRENGTHEN THE INDIRECT LINKS BETWEEN SUBPLOTS BY THEMATIC TIES.
You can’t do anything about what tastes your readers have in terms of what themes and what kinds of stories they prefer. That’s just a fact. Either they will be predisposed to like the story you’re writing or they won’t.
One thing you can do, though, to increase the chances that readers who like your main story will also enjoy reading the subplots you develop?
Put in some kind of thematic tie between them all!
A fantastic example of this is a recent example of the television show, “Once Upon a Time In Wonderland.”
The “Once Upon a Time” shows are unique in that they often tell two or three loosely connected stories an episode: one is set in the past of the storybook characters, and often takes place in a world separate from the realm those characters are presently inhabiting.
A recent episode had these two major storylines:
- Alice (in Wonderland) is trying to find a genie’s bottle with the help of the Knave of Hearts.
- The Knave of Hearts (in his past in the Enchanted Forest) joins Robin Hood and his Merry Men to propose they rob Maleficent’s castle.
- Two villains (in Wonderland), Jafar and the Red Queen, are plotting to stop Alice.
What combines all these subplots? In particular, what connects the flashback story about the Knave of Hearts, a character who is only a sidekick of the main character, to what is happening in Wonderland?
The theme of TRUST.
Each storyline comes to a head at a moment when one character must make a conscious decision whether to more or less blindly trust someone else in order to get something he or she wants.
It is very well constructed…. That theme of trusting other people, and the risk trust involves, is what the episode is really all about.
Each supblot puts a different spin of the danger and the value of trust while still advancing the major story of the series: Alice’s quest to rescue a genie named Cyrus from Jafar.
Even the flashback subplot helps: it characterizes the one person Alice believes she can trust in Wonderland and clues in the viewer that Alice might be making a mistake there. (I won’t say more than that… spoilers!)
My point here is that a common theme, or even tone and mood, among varied subplots will maintain an overall feel to your story that is consistent.
What I’m calling a “theme” could be anything, and could be developed or approached differently in different subplots. The connection sill provides a consistency that ensures something very, very important:
- Readers who enjoy the major story you are telling are more likely to enjoy at least one or two aspects of the subplots that are their least favorite.
Even fair readers who write poor reviews (because they didn’t enjoy the book, because it wasn’t for them) won’t be able to say your work was inconsistent, or dropped in quality halfway through, or was just confusing because it was all over the place.
Some readers can, and will, recognize when a book that doesn’t appeal to them is nonetheless well-constructed, consistent in what it does, and powerful in its storytelling. That’s why threads of some kind among your subplots matter.
So, what do you guys think of connecting subplots with each other and with the main plot? I’ve struggled with that in my current WIP…. I’m focusing on strengthening a tie of the value of selflessness and also cutting back on the subplot wherever I can. It’s helping a lot!
If you enjoyed this post or found it helpful, last week’s post about what makes a plot boring might also be useful.
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