by Leigh Holland
A sub-plot is a subordinate plot that moves along within and supports the main plot. A subplot is also called a ‘side story’. Subplots connect to the main plot through either theme or setting. They add layers to your story, can help hold up a sagging middle, and increase dramatic tension. The most meaningful subplots will also be useful. For instance, they can reveal things about the character, change the course of the main plot, or increase stakes if the character fails in his subplot minor goal.
Here are nine subplots to weave into your main story line.
The Comedy subplot often involves the best friend or sidekick of the protagonist. The advantages of adding a comedic subplot include lightening an otherwise dark or depressing part of the main story and showing the main character and story line from the perspective of a supporting character. Don’t try to add a comedic subplot unless you have a knack for it. An example of this type of subplot is found in The Tempest by William Shakespeare.
This subplot involves a character struggling against the chains of Addiction. The addiction can be to anything- drugs, liquor, a person, cream puffs by the dozen, and so on. The addiction should have real world negative consequences for the character when he fails to control it. An example of this subplot can be found in The Saint Jude Rules by Dominic Adler, wherein the main character must fight off his old addiction to stay focused on his larger goal.
The character has lost someone or something of vast significance. She is grieving, perhaps even volatile to others. One minute she may be cool, calm, and collected. Another she may be a sobbing mess and need her friends to be able to cope. Maybe the one experiencing these emotions is usually the supportive one for the main character and now it’s his turn to be there for her. The Tragedy subplot adds texture to both characters and story. An example of this type of subplot is the tragic drowning of Ophelia in Hamlet.
A character has hopes, dreams, and wishes. Maybe he wants to see Paris before he dies and he’s got six months to live. Perhaps he always wanted to take up professional photography and give up his life as an assassin. Maybe all those things are true, so he takes a big payoff hit job in Paris, hoping to fulfill his dreams before he dies with nothing but his regrets. This is the Fulfillment subplot.
In the 1958 Hitchcock classic Vertigo, based on the novel D’entre Les Mortes(From Among the Dead) by Boileau-Narcejac, Scottie Ferguson suffers from acrophobia, a fear of heights, and vertigo, the false sense of rotational movement. As a detective, he is hired to trail an old friend’s wife, Madeleine. He falls in love with her but due to his vertigo and acrophobia, is unable to save her from throwing herself off a bell tower. Broken and grief-stricken, Scottie becomes near catatonic and stays in a sanatorium. After his release, he sees a woman named Judy who is identical to Madeleine, but her makeup and hair are different. Her manner of dress and speaking are also different. He becomes involved with her, slowly making her over into his lost Madeleine. Scottie begins to realize he has been tricked. As he climbs the bell tower with Judy, explaining how they tricked him, Judy becomes more fearful. A shadow approaches from behind Scottie. Judy, spooked, falls to her death. Scottie stands, fearlessly, on the high ledge looking at her corpse below, a perfect example of the Phobia subplot.
In The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gatsby envies Tom Buchanan. Not for his wealth or his social standing, because Gatsby had come by those things also. He wanted the one thing society would frown on him for- Tom’s wife, Daisy. Likewise, Tom’s mistress Myrtle wants out of her poor, small town mechanic wife life. She’s envious of the lifestyle Daisy takes for granted. Myrtle sees Tom as her ticket out of the slums. The subplot of Myrtle’s envy of Daisy and desire for a glamorous life leads to tragic consequences that affect every character in the tale. This is an example of the Longing subplot.
Nobody’s perfect. Everyone makes resolutions each New Year to try to change. Most people never really try, they just dream of trying. But some people- perhaps your character’s best friend- follow through and struggle to change for the better. Alas, there are some people who change for the worse in the end. The struggle to Change subplot creates tension between characters and within characters, adding dimension and complexity.
The personal Growth subplot can prove very emotionally powerful. This works best when the subplot and main plot meet at the cathartic moment when the protagonist throws off his false beliefs about himself, comes into his own, and sheds his former wounds from his past. Alternately, he may learn a valuable lesson and make different decisions based on changed motivations.
Love makes the world, and its subplots, go round. This is the most common type of subplot. It doesn’t have to be romantic love- though it certainly can be. It can also be love for one’s family, friends, pets, perfectly trimmed hedges, etc. The Love subplot gives the protagonist the support she needs to thrive, but also causes her vast tension and even fear if they are in danger. An example of the love subplot is Romeo and Juliet, a play primarily about a feud between two rival families and how everyone was affected by their vendetta. The romantic subplot of the tale added tension and tragedy to an otherwise bloody, vengeful tale of lives lost to petty hate.
My last tip is to use one or two subplots per story. Don’t try to use too many at once. Overdoing it can choke your main plot.