The Thing About Sub-Plots

Certain storytelling questions keep popping up.  One of them, and a goodie, is this: does a sub-plot follow the same principles of linear structure as the main plotline? 

In other words, does the sub-plot also – like your main plotline – unfold over four contextually different parts, each separated by a succinctly defined milestone story-point?

This can be tough to wrap one’s head around.  Because one answer is: yes it does.  Another is: sometimes, or even, it certainly can.  Perhaps a better answer is: it depends.

Which is why this is considered art

Setting Up Your Sub-Plot

Great stories give us deep and compelling heroes.  Part of that greatness involves imbuing your hero with a life.  Where they are on that life’s path as we meet them, and on multiple levels, becomes the starting point of their character arc. 

The opening act of your story – Part 1 –exists for the purpose of introducing and defining that life as it exists prior to the arrival of the First Plot Point.  Because it shows us what they have going, what it is they have to gain or lose, Part 1 defines the stakes of the dramatic story to come.

Which, by the way, is only foreshadowed and set-up – and, at best, only partially defined – in Part 1. 

Then comes the First Plot Point, and it changes everything.  Including your sub-plot. 

Sometimes the First Plot Point defines a completely new life for your hero.  Or, just as validly, it merely puts their prior path on hold until they meet a short-term goal.  Like, staying alive until a near-term threat (the main storyline) has been squashed. 

Right here, at the First Plot Point, is where you – the author – need to be very clear on which is the main storyline and what drops into the background as a sub-plot.

While the main storyline is always that newly minted drama and need, as launched the by First Plot Point, the sub-plot becomes the continuation of some aspect of what they wanted and needed before the First Plot Point changed everything. 

How you string out your sub-plot, then, depends on which of those cases it is.  Is it on hold?  Or does it demand immediate, real-time attention concurrent with what your hero is dealing with on center stage?

That answer defines how you handle the sub-plot in a structural sense.

If it’s on hold, then you need to bring it back contextually and with subtlety over the course of the story.  Where and how that happens isn’t critical, as long as it does… artfully.

For example, picture your 12-step hero casting a longing glance at a glass of Scotch, even though someone is pointing a gun at them.  This reminds us of an emotional burden or complication to the hero’s primary story journey, and as such, his struggle with alcohol becomes a sub-plot.

If the sub-plot remains an urgent agenda, one that impacts decisions and behaviors that will come to bear on the primary plotline, then it should evolve and play out precisely according to the context of the four parts of a story – set-up/orphan…. Response/wanderer…. Attack/warrior… resolution/hero-martyr.

If, in the prior example, the hero belts down that Scotch and as a result can’t see straight in an attempt to escape, that’s sub-plot clobbering the primary plot between the eyes.

When this is the case, your sub-plot must adhere to the structural context for the part of the story within which you are working.  Don’t try to resolve a sub-plot in Part 2, for example, since your hero should be in wanderer/responding mode at that point.

One of the challenges of sub-plots is its very nature

If the sub-plot is a separate dramatic issue that parallels the main story’s exposition but doesn’t ever really impact it, then you must take care that it doesn’t distract from and even compete with the primary drama. 

Example: a story about someone trying to graduate from medical school despite the dark efforts of a jilted-lover professor (never sleep with your anatomy professor) to sabotage the diploma, can’t easily co-exist with a sub-plot about a loan shark trying to collect on a college loan by breaking the hero’s legs.  

A great sub-plot is subtle, even diabolically subtle, without trying to take over the story. 

Here’s a liberating guideline to the crafting of your sub-plots.

If your story is plot-driven, then make your sub-plot about characterization.  Have the sub-plot emerge from the hero’s inner landscape, and have it be a temptation or a burden as they deal with the primary drama at hand.

If your story is character-driven, such as a romantic comedy or serious family drama, have your sub-plot involve a dramatically-driven need, such as financial troubles or health problems or career stuff, the things that darken our days despite what we’re already dealing with in life.

Look for this in the stories you read and the movies you watch… it’ll be there almost every time.

In any case, the four part structure remains. 

Like a cross-country flight, the main storyline charts a course and follows a flight plan toward a destination with consequences and meaning.  It’s linear, even when there are bumps and the occasional mechanical problem.

The sub-plot, while perhaps unfolding on the same flight, is more about the flirty flight attendant or the guy next to you who won’t shut up. 

One realm is always in context to the other. 

Just make sure you know which story is in the pilot’s seat and which one is serving coffee. 


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

8 Responses to The Thing About Sub-Plots

  1. Interesting. My sub-plots are often not consciously created, but if I look at my story, they’re there.

    I like the idea of a dramatically-driven sub-plot in a character-driven story (and vice versa). Thanks!

  2. Cam

    Thanks for this post Larry. My main plot and sub-plot are concurrent and twine about each other to such an extent, even I have trouble telling them apart, so I’ve been struggling with where to set my “tent poles.”

    Defining the sub-plot as a continuation of what the main character wanted before the first plot point occured totally clarified the concept for me. Finally I can hoist my tent poles and finish that first draft.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  3. This is a great post. But whenever I read detailed and clear articles about structure, I get very very nervous about what I am doing. I am a very intuitive writer and 80% of the time when I match up the outline or manuscript with the desired story structure, it is there. But since I don’t think like this from the beginning, I get neeeeerrrrrvous.

  4. nancy

    You have just made me realize what I am struggling with. I am writing a family drama where the husband/ protagonist has an exciting career temporarily assigned overseas-at the expense of the wife’s career, which was back home. While he goes through his adventures (plot), she struggles with a sense of being useless and losing contact with her employer (subplot).
    You say that if the main story is plot-drive, a subplot could be character-driven. I’m trying to make sure the character-driven part doesn’t slow the pace of the plot.
    I’m wondering how I flesh out her issues (mostly internal conflict) while focusing on his issues (mostly external conflict). At first I wanted to give them alternate chapters, but his story is too plot driven to do that. She comes in about every third chapter to antagonize or challenge him. They both resolve at the end. Does this sound off-balance?

  5. Monica

    Excellent post, Larry! And timely! You’ve really clarified the sub-plot issue for me. I’ve had trouble with that in my current manuscript. I’m so straightforward, I focus on the main plot at the expense of any sub-plot at all. This will help me draw out a sub-plot from the life of my characters. Thanks a million!

  6. @Nancy — not off balance at all. But then, only you can make that call when it’s all done and needs to leave the roost. Sub-plots are tough in that they don’t have the hard and fast structural guidelines that primary plotlines do (sorry if that’s redundant with the post above, which it is, but it bears repeating). The trick is have a solid command of the nature of the sub-plot, its reasons for being there (a gratuitious sub-plot, because some workshop guys said you need one, is a mistake), and most importantly, how it relates to and ultimately plays into both the main story and the character arc. From that understanding arises your decisions as to how, when and where to focus on sub-plot, rather than from any prescribed rules. Hope this helps. Keep at it, what you’re doing sounds great… just be careful to not construct a “rule” (such as: sub-plot shows up in every third scene) for yourself. L.

  7. janice

    Thanks, larry. This was another great post that makes the complex feel do-able. As I don’t write novels, I can’t apply what I learn here to anything I’m writing, but the first thing that came to mind as I was reading this post was its relevance to quality TV shows. I think those writers who manage to craft and weave elegant subplots have a head start when it comes to doing the ‘multi-strand’ development you need for a TV series that hooks people. (Supernatural and Everwood came to mind first.) I love to watch the characters develop throughout a series and the whole run of the show while I’m entertained by the stories -the mini subplots – in each episode.

  8. nancy

    Thanks, Larry. Your comments really help.