1. Gholin
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    Gholin Member

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    The nature and necessity of subplots

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by Gholin, Jun 21, 2011.

    Hello. I have always had a hard time wrapping my head around planning for subplots and I wanted to ask if anyone thinks they are necessary for a good book or not?

    I always just plot my plotline and I don't specifically detail subplots. Perhaps I'm being too linear here, but all the details I have in my stories are weaved into the main plotline. I'm sure there are subplots, because stuff happens to the characters such as romantic moments, etc that don't really matter to the story itself, but I never really plot these things seperately, they just... happen.

    Is there something wrong with my process? Is planning a plot in a linear fashion bad? I can kind of pick out subplots in books I read and in my writing, but they just seem to be part of the plot to me, not some seperate entity.

    Can you please enlighten me, guys and gals? Thank you!
     
  2. JimFlagg
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    JimFlagg Contributing Member

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    I agree. My sub-plots tend to come up while I am writing. I only work out the main plot or maybe one subplot during my planning stage. Sub-plots are those things that you ask your self while you are writing, "Do I want to go down that path or will it ruin the story or cause huge plot holes?" They can be pesky that is for sure. I some times find my self going back to previous chapters to make sure the new sub-plot does not cause any problems.
     
  3. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    I can't imagine sitting down and trying to plan subplots. They just happen as the overall plot does. If you try to imagine them as a separate line happening at the same time as the story, you're doing something else, because subplots - implied by the "sub" - are as much a part of the main plot. They're just smaller thing that happen along the way, building into it. You know the main plot as a sort of concept of A to B, but there's so many points along the way between them that are needed to get there, and sometimes they stretch out, for the necessity of good storytelling, into subplots.

    A story with no subplots would be a one dimensional tube, chanelling the reader straight to the main thing. Like, Frodo sets out from the Shire, walks in a straight line for a couple of months, only ever encountering things relevant to his story, and the rest of the Fellowship melt away completely when they are no longer needed...

    Or, wait, they go off and fight their own battles to help him, then, subplotting further from that, Merry and Pippin in the second book help the Ents to help Aragorn, who is going to help Frodo. Even in the main storyline it isn't all plotplotplot - Frodo bumps into more characters along the way, such as his chapter-long encounter with Faramir, which aside from a little Sam/Frodo/Gollum character development, and some help along the road, is actually entirely a cross-over from the others' subplot, giving us background on Gondor and the people there that Frodo has absolutely no use for. He's not going to visit the city until the Ring is destroyed, yet they talk about it for most of the scene. The information is helpful to the reader, though, because the set up of the book is a long long part all about Frodo and Sam, a huge break between the action with the humans in the story, so it reminds the reader of it, and gives us something to remember in Return of the King, when otherwise the last time we heard about Gondor would have been halfway through The Two Towers.
     
  4. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    I can't imagine sitting down and trying to plan subplots. They just happen as the overall plot does. If you try to imagine them as a separate line happening at the same time as the story, you're doing something else, because subplots - implied by the "sub" - are as much a part of the main plot. They're just smaller thing that happen along the way, building into it. You know the main plot as a sort of concept of A to B, but there's so many points along the way between them that are needed to get there, and sometimes they stretch out, for the necessity of good storytelling, into subplots.

    A story with no subplots would be a one dimensional tube, chanelling the reader straight to the main thing. Like, Frodo sets out from the Shire, walks in a straight line for a couple of months, only ever encountering things relevant to his story, and the rest of the Fellowship melt away completely when they are no longer needed...

    Or, wait, they go off and fight their own battles to help him, then, subplotting further from that, Merry and Pippin in the second book help the Ents to help Aragorn, who is going to help Frodo. Even in the main storyline it isn't all plotplotplot - Frodo bumps into more characters along the way, such as his chapter-long encounter with Faramir, which aside from a little Sam/Frodo/Gollum character development, and some help along the road, is actually entirely a cross-over from the others' subplot, giving us background on Gondor and the people there that Frodo has absolutely no use for. He's not going to visit the city until the Ring is destroyed, yet they talk about it for most of the scene. The information is helpful to the reader, though, because the set up of the book is a long long part all about Frodo and Sam, a huge break between the action with the humans in the story, so it reminds the reader of it, and gives us something to remember in Return of the King, when otherwise the last time we heard about Gondor would have been halfway through The Two Towers.
     
  5. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I'm suspicious of subplots. If they arise from the characters naturally, they're fine. But too many times you find a novel that looks like it would be a good novella, but the writer didn't have enough material, so he glued a clumsy subplot onto the side of his story simply in order to pad things out to novel length, and it winds up being ridiculous. (I'm looking at you, Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card!)

    Great fiction can be written without subplots. Look at your overall story and see if the subplots enhance it or detract from it. Take the movie The Caine Mutiny. The main story is about the relationships between the possibly-crazy Captain Queeg and his possibly-mutinous officers, and the trial that results from that. All that is great drama. But the filmmakers decided to include a ridiculous subplot about one of the junior officers and his overbearing mother and his equally-overbearing girlfriend, and all that stuff could be cut from the movie and it would be stronger for it. (I haven't read the novel - maybe the subplots make more sense in the novel.)

    If your main plot is strong, avoid unnecessary subplots!
     
  6. StjåletStillhet
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    StjåletStillhet New Member

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    I agree that subplots generally occur as a result of the main plot, else alongside it. I find that what often creates a powerful plot is when each respective sub plot comes together to support the main plot.
     
  7. Gholin
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    Gholin Member

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    Thanks guys. It sounds like I'm on the right path, then. So one more question... In my story, at one point the MC must collect three artifacts to open a path to his goal. Would the collection of those three artifacts be subplots or plot? The artifact collection seems like three other stories that tie into the main to me, but then again it also all seems like plot to me. I really can't tell subplot from plot when I'm writing my story. It's just a story to me.

    Oh and yes, there are diverging moments whereother things that happen that don't move the main plot along, but help enlighten the MC instead, perhaps those are subplots? Thanks again! You guys have great insight!
     
  8. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    If it's about your main character collecting artifacts in order to achieve his main goal, it's plot, not subplot. If your main character's brother's dog is defecating on a neighbor's yard, and the neighbor sues the MC's brother for it, and that doesn't seem to matter to the MC, then it's a subplot and should probably be left out. If it DOES matter to the MC, how close is the tie-in? Is it really important? Does it affect the main plot? If not, delete delete delete.
     
  9. JimFlagg
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    JimFlagg Contributing Member

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    YES. Those are so hard to do. I personally would not attempt it because I know I would fail, but I am in awe of those who can do it.
     
  10. JimFlagg
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    JimFlagg Contributing Member

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    I don't know. Is it a part of the main story you are trying to tell or not?

    I have thought of sub-plots as being short stories that could almost stand on their own but build upon the main story. I could be wrong though.
     
  11. JPGriffin
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    JPGriffin Senior Member

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    I'd just like to say real quick that I feel like a total hypocrite when giving advice that I don't even use. Doesn't mean it's bad, but maybe a bit unpracticed.

    With subplots and main plots, you generally should be able to make the distinction between the two, but not so much that it screams, "Just skip to the next chapter." Use subplots sparingly. They're basically just a way to give the reader a break from the main plot, but they should be able to tie in one way or another. A good amount of books I've read would have seemed unreasonably slow if not for a few subplots here and there to distract me. As for how many subplots to use and when, that's up to you, but if you need to, hand it off to an avid reader. They're the ones you're selling to, so they'll know how it should read.
     
  12. Gholin
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    Gholin Member

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    It is part of the main story, but these are detours from the MCs quest that he needs to complete in order to reach his goal. I think I answered my own question.

    Can someone give me some quick examples of subplots of a popular work like Percy Jackson, Fablehaven or Harry Potter? Maybe that would help me understand what constitutes a subplot. To me, it all just melds together into a story and I don't recognize them very well. That's my problem in recognizing what a subplot is like, I think!
     
  13. JimFlagg
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    JimFlagg Contributing Member

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    I don't know if break is the best word but it fits. I use subplots to entertain while the reader is waiting for the main story to build. I also use them to build my characters by putting them in situations that force them to make choices and grow with the story. I do hate tangents however. This is why I hate Hermine Melville because he would just go off on so many unrelated tangents.

    Harry Potter was filled with sub-plots. The Hollows them selves where a subplot to the main story which was the Horcruxes leading to VMs doom. I think the best example would be Dumbledore's Army as a subplot.
     
  14. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    Definitely not stand alone. The plot itself is the umbrella that covers everything, and the characters and events should always be aware of it. To not use a fantasy example, but a more simple to imagine example, in a lot of romances a bad thing happens to someone close to the main character who isn't their lover - for example their father may die (this happens a lot I think, from my limited experience :p). Obviously it becomes a whole subplot in its own right, and the character development with the father, if told well, hasn't just been his opinions on the main character's relationship. Losing him is awful, but the writer includes it because sometimes a non-romance emotional shock is necessary for the main character. However, it's not the main plot, because that is summarised as "boy meets girl" etc etc, as the story's focus is on that one relationship, and poorly-developed romances pay no attention whatsoever to the side characters. So as much as the relationship with the dead father matters, it's not the emotional drive of the story, and therefore counts as a subplot.

    Sure you could write a story about the girl and her father, but that's not what you're doing. Until the subplot comes to a head I wouldn't devote full scenes to it. It will always focus on the main plot with background stuff, like the scene opening before things get serious, or comments aside, the father coming into the room halfway through a heated moment and making things awkward, etc etc, until suddenly he gets a few scenes of spotlight where suddenly the love interest only gets a few lines to themselves in between the focus on the dad. Because as useful as it is to the story, it's not the story itself.

    It's certainly not a break from the main story either. Or a way to lighten the mood for the readers - in my example it's actually a mood dampener, and the seriousness the story needs to seem better than average. It's all an integral part - it's just not THE driving force.
     
  15. JPGriffin
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    Good way of explaining it. As far as tangents go, I'll just say this: half of Lord Of The Rings is tangents, and I'm not proud to say that I had skipped at least twenty pages of tangents instead of reading them (honestly, I could care less about where Legolas came from).
     
  16. afrodite7
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    afrodite7 Senior Member

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    -here's my advice on subplots; only have them if necessary.i mean even a subplot should affect the main plot or the character in some way shape or form.you can't just throw them around. here's an example: jane likes harry,but harry likes tisha.he likes tisha,becaus she was nice to him years ago when everyone else teased him.so when they find out tisha is the princess they've been looking for,jane hesitates on trying to save her which could ultimately determine the outcome of whether she lives or dies.also,harry could be more determined to save her. see? necessary sub plot
     
  17. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    As far as I can tell that is all the plot. :p Unless you started that with a lot of back story about the princess, and then threw in the romance stuff as an afterthought to develop it or something, and there was actually a whole other thing going on with the princess.
     

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