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Sub-Plots and Story

Photo by Flickr user Jessica Fless-Hill

As I’ve been working through revision on my manuscript, I’ve been thinking a lot about sub-plots. Do I have enough? Too many? Do they work? Do they serve the story?

In working through the sub-plots in my own manuscript, and comparing them to sub-plots in some of my favourite books, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three main types of sub-plots:

  1. Character
  2. Intersectional
  3. Thematic

If I’ve missed any, feel free to tell me in the comments. These three, however, serve as a great starting point to determine whether a particular sub-plot serves the story, or whether it’s nothing but filler.

Character Sub-Plots

The purpose of a character sub-plot is to reveal additional information about a major character. Perhaps you’d like to show a different side of a character, or reveal information about their character that is pertinent to the actions they take during the course of the main plot. These sub-plots are the ones that turn the character from what I affectionately call a “character sheet with a gun” (often used amongst my circle of RPG-playing friends to describe a poorly created character) into a well-developed, multi-faceted person.

Let’s say, for example, you have a protagonist who is a hired assassin. He’s hired by an unidentified man to kill someone, but the job goes horribly wrong when it turns out the target is actually a vampire (because, why not?) and he shrugs off the bullet and swears vengeance on the hitman. The protagonist spends the rest of the story alternately fleeing from an angry vampire and trying to find out who hired him and why. In the end, he has to choose between cutting off the vampire’s head (thus completing his job) or letting the vampire live, and…. I don’t know, handing over the person responsible who hired him, or taking a contract on his previous employer, or simply checking himself into a psychiatric hospital in the hopes that the monsters won’t get him.

The point is that, during the course of that plot, we only see one side of the character — and in this case, he really is a “character-sheet with a gun”. Now, that’s all well and good if you’re writing a summer blockbuster where explosions and witty quips are (seemingly) more important than character development, but what if you want to show another side of the action hero?

Perhaps there’s a sub-plot where he promises his niece he’ll take her to her dance recital, but then he can’t make it because a vicious vampire followed him home. The sub-plot where he desperately tries to make it up to his niece, showing up backstage to her final performance, is completely unrelated to the main plotline, but it reveals a lot about who the protagonist is, deep down. And that’s going to make your story stronger.

Intersectional Sub-Plots

An intersectional sub-plot is one that intersects with the main plot, and pushes the story forward. This is by far the most common sub-plot that I notice — or, rather, it’s the most common sub-plot that I come across when I dissect a novel that I enjoyed, although (if done well) they’re almost entirely invisible to the reader. They exist to provide a character — often the protagonist — with an item, experience, or ally which initially seems unrelated to the main plot, but which turns out to be vital for her success.

Let’s go back to our supernaturally-challenged hitman. Perhaps the only way he can defeat the vampire is to have a clove of garlic with him at the climax of the story. Now, I don’t know about you, but I rarely have cloves of garlic in my pockets. (If you do, more power to you.) So, how does the protagonist get the garlic he needs?

The simplest answer is to set the final confrontation in a store where garlic is readily available in the produce section. Cue the gunfight, explosions, and frantic phone call from an ally who just has time to yell: “Garlic! You need garlic!” before the protagonist’s phone is knocked from his hand, and they begin a crazy cat-and-mouse game of trying to be the first one to reach the fresh garlic. The more elegant solution is to weave in a sub-plot much earlier in the story so the protagonist has garlic with him for a completely authentic reason.

There are copious examples of these kinds of sub-plots in almost any book you can name, but the book(s) that comes immediately to mind for me is Harry Potter. Have you ever noticed that the school work the heroes are assigned at the beginning of each novel turns out to contain the one clue that’s necessary to beat the bad guy at the end? (Thank you for your nerdiness, Hermione.)

Thematic Sub-Plots

The purpose of a thematic sub-plot is to reinforce the theme, or message, of the main plot, either by matching it or mirroring it. These sub-plots often don’t intersect the main plot at all, and the principle characters of these sub-plots are often minor characters in the main plotline. They stand apart from the main plot and enhance the story not with action, but with mood.

The story of our erstwhile hitman may, for example, make the point that ‘truth is relative’. A thematic sub-plot for this story, then, may involve the assassin’s niece competing for a place in a renowned dance company.

You could match the main plot’s theme by having her realise that there is no objective measure for who the “best” dancer is, and her appointment to the company (or failure to make the grade) doesn’t change the truth of who she is. Alternately, you could mirror the main theme by having her hold fast to the idea that truth is absolute, and when she fails to make the company, she gives up dancing forever and succumbs to anger and bitterness.

One of my favourite examples of thematic sub-plots can be found in Pride and Prejudice, where there are examples of both matching and mirroring the relationship of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.

Weaving it all together

In an ideal world, a sub-plot will do more than one thing, perhaps revealing character as well as intersecting with the main plot; or pushing the story forward while thematically mirroring the protagonist’s story. If a sub-plot does none of these things, however, there’s a pretty good chance that it’s filler rather than true depth.

How do you weave sub-plots into your story? Do you have criteria you use to determine whether they’re truly serving the story?

About Jo Eberhardt [2]

Jo Eberhardt is a writer of speculative fiction, mother to two adorable boys, and lover of words and stories. She lives in rural Queensland, Australia, and spends her non-writing time worrying that the neighbor's cows will one day succeed in sneaking into her yard and eating everything in her veggie garden.