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Subplots: Connection, Conflict, and Range

Saturday, November 18, 2006

In the article “Put a Subplot to Work in Your Story” (The Writer, October 2006), Laura Yeager uses the example of the film The Wizard of Oz. The main plot: four misfits (a homeless girl, a brainless scarecrow, a heartless tin man, and a gutless lion) set out on one path (the yellow brick road) toward one goal (to have their “lesses” fulfilled). Much adventure and music ensues. No subplot right? According to Yeager, the subplot of Oz is Kansas—the bookends of the movie. When thinking of that movie, most of us usually remember the part in color with munchkins and witches—because that’s the main story and where we have the main conflict for the characters. But if it weren’t for seeing Dorothy at home and how much she yearned for adventure and excitement and to go “somewhere over the rainbow,” nothing that takes place in Oz would mean as much. Therefore, in this case, the subplot defines the motivation and goal for Dorothy. It gives value to her quest to return there even though in Oz, she seemingly has everything she’d wished for before.

I’ve recently adopted a quote by the writer of historical novels Jeff Shaara: “When the characters are ready, the story will come out of me.” In my case, this has been true with each of the manuscripts I’ve completed. The characters drove the story. It’s just a matter of coming up with the right characters in the right circumstances.

Developing a successful subplot depends mainly on choosing the right characters to work with. You do not have to incorporate additional POV characters to do this—one of your POV characters can be involved in the subplot.

For example, in the movie Signs, the main plot of the movie (spoiler if you haven’t seen it) is about the impending invasion by hostile aliens, heralded by the crop circles in Rev. Graham Hess’s corn field. In a super-minor subplot (a conversation he has with two other people), we learn Graham’s younger brother Merrill was a minor league baseball player years ago with the record for most homeruns—and most strikeouts. “Felt wrong not to swing.” In what seems like another unrelated thread, we learn that Graham used to be a pastor but has fallen away from the church as a result of his wife’s accidental death. We see flashbacks throughout the story and eventually learn that the town veterinarian (a cameo by the film’s writer/director M. Night Shyamalan) fell asleep at the wheel and hit Graham’s wife on the side of the road, pinning her to a tree where she lingered long enough for Graham to arrive and speak to her. So what, we wonder, does this have to do with the hostile aliens who want to kill everyone? There is a touching scene of dialogue between Graham and Merrill about faith. We know that what happened in this subplot has affected the way our main character views the world. But it isn’t until the climax of the main plot, when the alien whose fingers Graham chopped off is holding the little boy about to kill him that we discover the significance of the subplot: as she spoke her final words, Graham’s wife gave him the solution. “Tell Graham to see . . . And tell Merrill to swing away.” Graham looks around the room and SEES the trophy baseball bat on the wall . . . and ding the subplot provides the resolution for the main plot. Graham repeats the words to Merrill, who then grabs the bat and does what he does best—swings it—eventually bringing about the demise of the alien.

In Writing the Breakout Novel, Don Maass spends a chapter on multiple POVs and subplots in which he gives some requirements for the development and use of subplots.

1. Subplots need to have a good reason for existing and should be interconnected with the rest of the story. He recommends looking for minor characters to use who are already close to the main character: family, friends, colleagues. He cautions against trying to use characters who are seemingly unrelated to the main story unless the connection will be revealed early on.

2. Subplots need to tie-in with and affect the main plot. If the subplot isn’t going to either help or hinder the ultimate resolution of the conflict of your main plot, it is just a rabbit-trail. So look for characters/subplot opportunities that can increase tension, create conflict, and raise the stakes for your main plot.

3. Subplots give you the opportunity to explore what Maass refers to as “range”: portraying a variety of experience. I had trouble understanding this until I related it to my own life. I don’t exist just as a copy editor for a small publishing house. I am a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a cousin. I am a member of a church in an area of town that is known for being well-to-do—but I don’t live in that area of town. I am a single, 35-year-old woman who is a happy member of a Sunday School class of married couples in their mid-40s and up. I sing in the choir. For the last six years, I’ve been a part-time student. I am former Vice President and current Educational Coordinator for the largest professional organization for Christian fiction writers in the world. Do you see where I’m going with this? If I were a character in a novel, looking at the range or full scope of my life there are several areas from which to pull interesting characters for subplots—family, coworkers, people at church, fellow college students, other ACFW officers or members, etc. We do not live in isolation—our characters shouldn’t either (unless that’s the plot of your novel!).

How many? Maass immediately follows these rules with the discussion of how many subplots to include. His take: “Two or three major subplots are about all that even the longest quest fantasies can contain.” Remember, the reason you’re writing your novel is the main plot. You don’t want to pull the reader’s attention away from it—except when it will build additional suspense. You also don’t want your readers to feel there are too many characters and so much going on that they can’t make sense of what your story is about.

So, look at your novel. If you feel you have too many subplots, determine which are rabbit-trails and which affect the outcome of the main plot. Focus on one or two and start exploring their merit. Do they connect, add complications, and extend the range of the main plot?

Subplots are the spices we add to the main plot. Just like food becomes inedible when too salty or not salty enough, using subplots in our novels is a delicate balance of adding enough to enhance but not enough to detract. Always keep in mind: your story is about your MAIN PLOT. Everything in it—characters, setting, subplots—is there to make it resonate with the reader.

  1. Anonymous permalink
    Sunday, November 19, 2006 8:27 pm

    Ahah! Did you hear it? A penny dropped!

    One of the hardest things I’ve run up against is doing on purpose what came naturally early on. I wrote two full novels without worrying about subplots, characterization, etc. It seems the more I know, the harder writing becomes.

    The third point from Donald Maass really clicked with me. And your explanation was terrific.


  2. Monday, July 2, 2007 2:56 pm

    I’m with Anonymous on this, it can be hard to try to do something that comes naturally. In the book “Searching for Mom” there are a number of subplots, but there was never any concern over deciding when a subplot should be added. The subplots came as the story unfolded. Writing is about communicating, so when the author asks himself why a reader will know that something is true, a subplot naturally appears. In the Wizard of Oz, it would not be good to jump immediately to the yellow brick road, so the subplot was a natural thing. The author began with something the reader recognized, gave the reader a way into the wonderful land of Oz and gave the reader a good reason to get back out. In some of the later books, Kansas was not needed as a subplot.

    It is interesting that subplots may have subplots. Dorthy was having problems coping at home, but she was also having problems at school. These are two separate plots within a plot. I see writing as an art form. It is easy to analysis something after it is written, but if it is much more difficult to write based on people’s opinions on how to write.



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