Your story’s main plot does a lot of heavy lifting, but it can’t always manage everything by itself, which is where subplots come in. They can be very useful for building mysteries, furthering relationships, and developing side characters, but they can also be dangerous. They risk fragmenting your story, and if you’re not careful, they can even overthrow the main plot and reign supreme. Fortunately, we have a few tips to avoid those problems, plus some exciting tea discourse!
Generously transcribed by Fussilat Ibrahim. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris and with me is Oren and Wes. So this time we’re talking about subplots, but… I gotta say I am missing my tea. I had a whole mug of tea and it’s mysteriously gone. And I don’t know where it is. Just thought, I’d say that in this podcast about subplots.
Oren: Well I mean If we’re lucky, the missing tea will just build in the background until we discovered that actually talking about subplots was the key to getting your tea back.
Wes: Unless the tea brews so long that it somehow gets its own sense of consciousness and then becomes the villain…surprise!
Oren: Ooh, that could also be good. The downside will be if we just stopped talking about subplots for a while to look for Chris’s teapot, because then people will be like, wait, hang on. Is this about subplots or tea what’s going on? They’re easily confused is what I’m saying.
Chris: All right. So first let’s talk about what are subplots? Which is going to take longer than I wish.
Wes: It should because I’m confused.
Chris: This is language we don’t actually use on the blog, that much. The term subplot is usually accompanied by the term main plot. I actually used to use the main plot on the blog, and then Oren came out and said we’re calling it a through line. This was before I was very conscious of terminology and making sure we were all on the same page. And so I just, okay, well, Oren’s very passionate about this term. So we’re going to use this term instead now. You know, a subplot is arcs that are not your main plot. And what is your main plot? Well, we’ve talked about through lines. Before. And, the idea is that the plotline or plot arc that kind of encompasses your whole story. And it’s the main thing that your story is about. And again, all arcs open with a problem and close when that problem is resolved for bad or good. Then your main plots, your main plot is the through line, but then your through line also has child arcs, which we’ve talked about, cause plots are full fractal.
So for instance, if your through line is that in the beginning, your protagonist gets lost in a labyrinth that’s full of dangerous traps. Then you might end when they get free of that labyrinth. If you have a sequence where they try to leave the first chain or they run into a Minotaur, that’s just trying to squish them, that’s not a subplot, that’s a child arc because it’s clearly one step in getting out of the labyrinth. Whereas the subplots would be the things that don’t fit, that aren’t necessary parts of that sequence of leaving the labyrinth. And a lot of times we refer to them with more specialized terms. So other people might not do the same thing, but I would characterize a character arc as a subplot or a lot of relationship arcs or romances as subplots.But it could also be some other external arc, maybe the character who’s trying to escape the labyrinth notices something weird going on. And that leads them to find another character who then departs with them. Finding that other character would be like a separate mystery. That would be included as they’re leaving the labyrinth, hopefully, but it’s not actually part of their journey to leave the labyrinth. It’s a separate mystery that’s solved.
Oren: It certainly seems that in written stories in prose, the majority of subplots are relationship arcs, love stories, or friendship stories, or all internal issues are all common subplots. But you can have more external ones. You see them in mystery stories like in the first resident files novel, he’s investigating these murders, but he also hears about this weird new street drug called third eye. That sounds like it might be magical in some way. You don’t know how that’s connected to the murders until towards the end. So at that point, the subplot re-merges with the main plot.
Chris: But I would say that just like that example. That’s how a lot of secondary external arcs are. For the most of that arc, it doesn’t seem to be related to your through line or your main plot. So it’s basically as a subplot is how it operates.
Wes: Then what happens in prose stories that you guys have hardly critiqued where there’s different POV characters who have their own plots.
Wes: Besides yeah, abject failures. I feel like somebody would just call that a subplot.
Chris: No, I mean it would be categorized as a subplot. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, but if you have, for instance, your hero, your foreign boy chosen one, you know, a typical, epic fantasy story with like lots of viewpoints, right? Foreign boy chosen one, goes on the quest and that’s your main character. And then, because this writer wants to show off their world. Suddenly you have a viewpoint of some other character in a similar fantasy city and they’re doing something entirely else, but they’re clearly not the main character, whatever they’re doing is a subplot.
Oren: Yeah. And I mean, figuring out which one is a subplot sometimes requires some judgment calls, like in certain stories. A Song of Ice and Fire in particular has all kinds of plots going in, and some of them are definitely subplots. Are some of them like co- plots? I would argue that who’s going to sit on the iron throne is roughly as important as, will we all get killed by the others? I think those two plots have roughly the same importance in the books. So, it’s really hard to say that one is a subplot of the other. What’s going to happen to Brianne of tarth, that’s a subplot. That’s not really directly, obviously related to who’s going to be on the throne or who’s going to get eaten by the others.
So those are subplots. Subplots are dangerous. For the reasons we were just laying out is that they can very easily just end up being distractions. I honestly think that TV is the cause of this. I think TV is bad for your children and it rots their brains in particular, if they want to be writers. So like before you let your kids watch TV, ask them if they want to write novels. And if they say yes, then don’t let them, because TV does things very differently and can get away with more. Although TV also has its limits, in general TV can get away with more fractured or split up stories than a novel can. People who get their storytelling from television, then want to transfer that into novels. And at least with the clients I work with, this results in very fractured stories where we don’t really spend very much time with the supposed main plot, because we’re always off chasing subplots. Because that’s what we saw on TV.
Chris: There are definitely TV shows like Carnival Row, where you can see they have problems. Often TV shows are also better at it, if they have a large cast and ensemble, getting them all involved in the same arcs, the same plot. Whereas the typical novel writer, they’re just off doing their own thing. They don’t need to interact in any way. They actually do a better job of it, but some shows like Carnival Row, either not viewpoint characters, but the story is following them. So they’re the equivalent of viewpoint characters who are just doing their own thing. It does definitely weaken the show.
Oren: Yeah. Age of Resistance had that problem. The Dark Crystal show, the characters were doing completely different things. There was no real connection, finally connected at the end, but that just took too long.
Chris: It’s still better than most novel viewpoints though, because it was clear how they were going to connect and that they were tackling the same problem from different directions, even though they weren’t interacting, which is better than most viewpoints in the office unfortunately.
Oren: In an episode of Star Trek, in this episode, the main plot is that they’re trying to purge an evil computer virus from the computer core. And then there could be a B plot where data learns to play the flute.
Chris: And that would be the subplot, the B plot would be a subplot in the episode.
Oren: But don’t do that in the novel please, or a novella or any prose work. It’s just a bad idea.
Chris: I mean, I do think that probably the fact that those shows are very episodic is one of the reasons why that works out because we have a huge series of mostly isolated stories, definitely with subplots, they work better If you can multitask and they run alongside, the primary arc in the through-line. If they don’t do that and you’re taking a break, then they just become tangents and they feel like they’re stopping movement in the story.
Oren: That’s why relationship arcs make such good subplots because they can naturally be moved forward at the same time as your external conflict. Whereas it’s hard to do two external conflicts at the same time, not impossible but difficult. At the same time, one of the biggest problems that I run into in my manuscripts is people wanting to put their plot on hold, to advance a relationship arc. My characters are going to go on a date now. And weren’t they fighting vampires a second ago. Yeah, but it’s date night. And there are ways to do that. There are ways to work dates into your plot. One way is to make the date part of the plot. The person that they’re dating might potentially be a bad guy and they’re trying to find out. Or maybe the date is somewhere where they’re going to gather information. It’s also possible to have your date be like a quiet, lower tension scene after you know, or between two higher tension sequences. Although that’s not always what people want, because generally you want a little spark.
Chris: You can interrogate your date for information.
Wes: I like that!
Chris: That way you can use it to solve the problem.
Oren: There are lots of ways to do that. But a lot of people just kind of stop and are like, all right, well, they’re going to go and talk about whatever they’re doing and advance their relationship. Meanwhile, the main plot is just hanging out, being like, when are you going to get back to me? I thought I was important.
Wes: I’m just thinking about how we should say side plots for a lot of stuff or tangent plots, just so we can really talk about these problems. Because I really like what Chris was saying earlier, about the fractal plotting there’s all these little mini subplots. They do various things that are important, Such as establish or develop motivation, possibly reveal backstory, pretension, or like build suspense. But then all these side plots and these tangent plots don’t do anything. It’s just a word mess. I’m having a jumbled brain.
Chris: I felt like I had to make up the term child arc because subplot was already taken. When you think about subheading, it sounds like it should be a division of a plot. Plot and higher level plot, and then subplots within it. But that’s not actually what it means. It means another plot that’s running alongside the first plot.
Wes: Oren did you say, an A plot and a B plot in a Star Trek episode, A and B they’re both letters. So I still assume they’re going to be related.
Oren: Well in Star Trek, they very often aren’t right! Often the A plot and the B plot are completely unrelated. Star Trek can get away with it. I’m not convinced that’s a good way to do television either, but that’s the convention. I can tell you with extreme confidence, It does not work in novels, Extreme confidence.
Wes: The only way an A arc and a B arc works is if it’s like a parallel arc like Frodo and Samwise have theirs and the rest of the fellowship have theirs, but they’re important because they meet up at the end.
Chris: But also argue that, Lord of the Rings because it bores so many people is perhaps not the best example of good plotting, but at least some of the sequences, you can see a relationship that they have to each other
Oren: If it were me, and I was dev editing or content editing the Lord of the Rings, I would definitely recommend that Tolkien not split up the fellowship before he has all these big battles that Frodo and Sam aren’t part of. I know that sounds weird cause we’re used to Lord of the Rings and it’s been like that. It’s an older story. We accept that it’s the way it is, but I’m not convinced that splitting the characters into two groups and having them run largely unrelated conflicts because most of those fights don’t have any impact on Frodo and Sam. It doesn’t matter to Frodo and Sam’s story, what happens at Helm’s Deep they’re either going to kill Sauron, or they’re not. It doesn’t really matter what happens at Ministereth either. It finally matters when Aragorn decides to launch his distraction attack on Mordor. That’s when those things finally come together, I’m not convinced that it was worth it. I think there are probably better ways to tell that story, but it’s a challenge when you’re looking at a story as old as Lord of the Rings, and as widely read and also adapted into movies. Now it’s hard to imagine Lord of the Rings any other way, right?
Wes: If you were to run co plots like that, they would need to have more touch points.
Oren: It’s very difficult for me to come up with scenarios in which it is a good idea to be running different external conflict plots at the same time. Usually the situations for this are very specialized. The Dresden files example that I mentioned earlier, that one is a case of you clearly have your most important conflict, and then you have this side thing going on in the background, but that Dresden story would be really weird if Dresden paused the murder investigation to go look into this drug thing he heard about.
Chris: I mean, first what we’re talking about when we’re talking about two external arcs running alongside each other, because if you’re multitasking and they’re actually sharing scenes. You can actually fit them together or they’re so often closely linked. That we don’t need to alternate between two different viewpoint characters to cover them. Then that’s usually just fine. But that’s one of the reasons why people don’t have tons of subplots coming out their ears or they shouldn’t everywhere is because you can only do that with so many things. If you do have something like two different viewpoint characters and you’re alternating between them, the big question you have to ask is. What do we gain by doing that instead of covering them one of the time, separating them into their own stories.
What synergy do they have with each other? Because if they’re not, then that’s just going to lower engagement. Now the story is fragmented. The more interaction the better. You know, we can quibble over exactly how much interaction, how much they should affect each other before that pays off to have that kind of alternation.But that’s one of the reasons we usually specify that multiple viewpoints are better in political intrigues. Because usually the point of a political intrigue is that you have multiple actors, on either side, trying to maneuver against each other. And oftentimes, they each have a viewpoint, but they’re always scheming against each other. So you can see why they matter to each other.
Oren: It’s surprising how often you can make this work by just making your main character part of the thing that you want to happen. In Deep Space Nine, there’s a really neat scene. It’s an episode later in the show when the crew is all going off to fight the dominion. And they found themselves with a few extra minutes in the episode. And so they filmed the short little scene where Garrick and Quark talk about how weird it feels to be depending on humans to protect them. And that’s a very nice scene. People like that scene. It’s a cool little character bit, there have been essays written about how in other Star Trek shows they might’ve filled that up with more technobabble. I would say you don’t want that in a novel for a number of reasons, but if you have characters who you want to develop that way, it wouldn’t be too hard to come up with a reason for your protagonists to be there. And for that to be like a quiet scene. And that’s actually the role that, that plays in the episode is because like, that’s our quiet scene right before we engage the dominion. And there’s no reason why a protagonist couldn’t be there. So you don’t have to just immediately jump to cutting away to what different people are doing unrelated to your protagonist.
Chris: One thing that I do think a lot of storytellers get in trouble with, especially if they’re newer, is not realizing how many plot hooks they’re putting in their story. They’re just kind of inserting unanswered questions and inserting problems and not realizing that they’re basically adding a subplot.The more you recognize what hooks are and what problems are. The easier that is to identify and take care of. And on the other hand, there’s also adding too many subplots where now the story’s overburdened and scattered and you can’t fit them all in. If you have four character arcs for your main character, even in a novel, which is very long, it’s almost certainly too many. There’s a limited number of areas that you can focus on for all their personal growth before nothing has enough time. And it starts to feel really random.
Oren: Literary terms are often nebulous and people often mean different things by them. But I have noticed that people tend to start calling a subplot, a side quest, the further detached it is from the main story.That’s something to look out for. If you beta readers in particular, start to call something a side quest it’s probably because it just feels very unimportant to what’s going on in the rest of the story. A really prime example of that Is the Casino Planet sequence from The Last Jedi or Canto Bight as it is called, because it starts off as barely even a subplot. When it starts it’s almost just part of the main plot because it’s like, okay, the first order is tracking us. We got to go get a guy who can stop that from happening.
Alright let’s do it. Okay. That’s part of the plot where you’re splitting your characters up in a way that I wouldn’t recommend you do in a novel, but in a movie that’s reasonable, but then they get to Canto Bight, and then it’s, okay. So this is like a Casino Planet, and we’re going to spend a lot of time on the unjust nature of Casino Planet and don’t get me wrong. I’m sure Casino Planet is very unjust. What does this have to do with the first order and the resistance? And that’s when it starts to feel like a side quest, it doesn’t seem like this is really related at all because Canto Bight’s, not a first order planet. That’s when you’re going to start to run into problems. And then eventually at the end, it’s like, okay, we got the tech guy, let’s take him back. And now, now we’re part of the plot again, but there’s this long period. Where it’s not really about that anymore.
Chris: Right? There’s no movement in the main plot of that.
Oren: Technically the trip to Canto Bight is a subplot. There are other subplots in Star Wars, but the reason that one in particular gets singled out as feeling like a side quest is just because how unrelated most of that stuff is to the main story.
Chris: Stories have lots of arcs and lots of different types of arcs. And, you know, we’re talking about real stories. It gets very complex. A lot of times when we’re talking about things like the main plot we’re specifically talking about, or the through-line, the encompassing arc that has the highest tension, if there’s life or death stakes on the line, instead of somebody’s personal satisfaction on the line. It’s a higher attention to arc because the highest tension plot lines and arcs, they just tend to take over. If you want to focus your story more on lower tension arcs, sometimes it’s a mistake to add something higher attention in. If it’s just going to be a distraction, unless you’re willing to, to really build it and do lots of multitasking. So it supports your lower attention arcs. It is capable of just distracting from them.
So sometimes there are other arcs that are just as encompassing like Dr. Horrible’s singalong blog is actually a really good example when I did a breakdown of that. I just referred to it as having three different through lines, because it has a very important external arc, relationship arc, and character arc that are all very integrated with each other. It does lots of multitasking. And they all definitely encompass the whole thing from start to finish. They all feel very central and important, but oftentimes we would just call Dr. Horrible’s quest to get into the evil league of evil, because that actually has some life or death stuff on the line, because then they tell him after he puts in his application. Yeah. We’ll kill you if you don’t make it in. That raises the stakes for that particular arc. And so a lot of times that one would be considered the main plot, and his romance with Penny and whether or not he becomes more or less evil would be more in the subplot territory.
Oren: Yeah. Or you can get into Fruits Basket territory where we introduced the subplot about freeing the various family members from the Zodiac curse that would make a really big deal about it in season two. And then it’s like, actually we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to focus on the character relationships and not really worry about the magic too much. Okay. I mean, I also liked the character relationships, but you’re the ones who made a big deal about breaking the curse.
Chris: It feels like that’s supposed to be the main plot. And clearly the writer just had no interest in it. At first it’s presented as though the main character Toro is going to break this curse and then in season three, find out, oh, she doesn’t need to, it’s breaking itself. It’s just coming naturally. You don’t even do anything. It’s like, wow. That is really unsatisfying.
Oren: If you wanted that to happen, I think that could have been fine, but you made that seem like a conflict. You introduced a higher tension plot and then decided you weren’t interested in it anymore.
Chris: Right, it even set up the idea that Keogh is going to get imprisoned after he graduates from high school because of what’s going on.But the curse breaking takes care of it.
Wes: You got to appreciate just how courteous big bats like that are to just lay low or check themselves out. Just like pretty much any high school, urban fantasy, oh no, my schoolwork. And he’s like, I’m sorry, Sabrina. There’s literally satanic forces at play here.
Chris: We had a whole episode about, you know, high school paranormal or fantasy, just because this problem is so rampant trying to combine the high stakes, supernatural plots with the lower stakes high school stuff. It just doesn’t work.
Oren: Well, another thing to mention when you’re looking at another kind of common subplot, which is the development of a side character, a lot of stories do this, and it’s a perfectly legitimate thing to do, but you have to remember to think of it in terms of how is it important to your main character and how does it affect the rest of that story. Because that’s the reason why your reader is going to care about it. So that’s why you want to have the side character develop in ways that relate to the main character. And so the main character can watch this happen. If you just cut to a side character, just to have them go through a difficult moment to have a realization. It’s like okay, well that could have been cool if it was related, but now it’s a distraction.
Wes: It’s fun when your protagonists they’re a party, they’re a group together. I like your idea of actually the fellowship not breaking up because it’s fun to see the main character experience what these secondary characters are going through. Talked about the Chronicles of pride and on here before, but Teran is almost always with four other people and he sees Gurgi and Flutter and Island Wi and Dali change. And it affects him too. He’s the main character, but he’s always part of the group. And I like how that’s woven together through their shared experiences.
Chris: Oftentimes you’ll have a travel story, sometimes a group of characters that are all on the same mission, but for different reasons. And so their individual motivations from being there can be side plots that come up and are satisfied at some point and just affect their presence.
Wes: Like this big takeaway is just like, take your characters and smash them into the same place. And it’ll get more interesting and better.
Chris: Yeah. I will say that if you want to take a tour of your world, just make a group of characters that travel, instead of just splitting them up into different viewpoints, just make them travel.
Oren: It’s fine for them to stick together, guys, they can just hang out and go on a world tour. That’s an acceptable storyline. Well, I think we will bring the podcast back together. Hopefully Chris has found her tea by now.
Chris: I did find it. It’s in the microwave. I forgot that it got cold and I went to heat it up again.
Oren: Oh man. Time for tea discourse. Some people get mad when you tell them you microwave tea. I’m excited for this.
Chris: Oh, no! New plot hook. To be continued.
Wes: Or are we just doing like a bookend subplot? Right. Chris wasn’t ready for tea at the start of this podcast, but through the trials and tribulations of the podcast, Chris is now ready for tea.
Oren: We’ll put that on it and put that on the cover of the story of one podcast, hosts, a journey to getting ready for tea. But before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Cathy Ferguson who was a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman jobber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Denita Rambo. She [email protected] We’ll talk to you next week.
Chris: If you have a story that’s not quite working, we’re here to help. We offer consulting and editing services on Mythcreants.com.[Closing Theme]
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