Some Thoughts on Subplots
by Lisa Paitz Spindler
Melanie Anne Phillips in her Storymind Dramatica article ‘Subplots’ classifies subplots as either parallel or hinged.
To explain parallel subplots, she uses the example of Woody Allen’s CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS ". . . in which the ‘Crime’ story with Martin Landau and the ‘Misdemeanor’ story with Woody Allen never really affect each other." Hinged subplots, on the other hand, will change the course of the main plot. Phillips uses the example of Han Solo’s debt to Jabba the Hutt in STAR WARS. In this subplot Han is the main character in his own story, but the outcome of his story — Han being frozen in carbonite — changes the course of the main story: Luke leaves Dagobah before the completion of his Jedi training to go save Han.
Unless you’re on the same level as Woody Allen, however, Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff in ‘Taming the Fictional Wilds’ (Fiction Writer Magazine, April 1999) says that a subplot should be interwoven with your main plot or it’s unnecessary: "How do you determine if a subplot’s unnecessary? One answer is yet another question: If you removed this subplot from the story, would it change the ultimate outcome or the reader’s perception of that outcome?"
So we’re left with only one type of subplot if you’re writing genre/commercial fiction to be consumed by the masses: hinged. Still confused?
Here’s one definition from A GLOSSARY OF LITERARY TERMS AND A HANDBOOK OF RHETORICAL DEVICES by Robert Harris, Professor of English at Vanguard University of Southern California:
"Subplot: A subordinate or minor collection of events in a novel or drama. Most subplots have some connection with the main plot, acting as foils to, commentary on, complications of, or support to the theme of, the main plot. Sometimes two opening subplots merge into a main plot."
Uh, OK then. In other words, a subplot is secondary to the main plot and should (1) comment on, (2) complicate/foil, or (3) support the main plot.
For example, Ann Tyler’s DINNER AT THE HOMESICK RESTAURANT is the story of the children of Pearl Tull: Cody, Jenny and Ezra. Each subplot concerning each of these characters seems separate from the other because of Tyler’s style of not switching back and forth between characters. In some ways each sibling’s life is a comment on one of the others’ lives, which makes it seem like these are parallel subplots. Everything ties into Pearl, however, and it’s her life (and that of the family’s life) that is the main plot of the story. Each one of these subplots does affect the others, so it that way the subplots are hinged and not parallel.
Romance: Two Subplots, One Love
It’s the last line of Harris’ definition of subplot that seems particularly relevant to writing romance: "Sometimes two opening subplots merge into a main plot."
In romance, the main plot must be the love story between the hero and the heroine. Rarely, however, is the goal of these two characters to meet someone and fall in love. Sometimes the goal of one of the two protagonists is to find a spouse, but the goal is not to fall in love. Often the love-related goal of a protagonist in a romance is to hold back one’s heart for fear of the consequences. At the very least, falling in love at the point in the life that the story takes place is the worst thing that could happen. Abracadabra, though, it’s actually the best thing that could happen to that character, they just don’t know it yet.
So usually, the protagonists in a romance novel have other goals in mind. At first the love story may seem peripheral because it’s overshadowed by the subplot(s). In the beginning of a romance, the heroine and the hero each have something they want when they cross paths. These two subplots intertwine to create the main thrust of the novel: the love story. They realize that they need each other to solve their initial problems.
In the article ‘Top 10 Questions to Ask Yourself as You Begin to Write Your Novel,’ Cristine Grace says:
". . . the romance should always be the focus of the story — romances have relationship-driven plotlines. So, it’s very important to watch and make sure your subplot (i.e.: the kidnappers who are trying to get the heroine) doesn’t overwhelm your romantic plot. Everything that happens in the plot should advance the romance along."
The classic ‘kidnappers who are trying to get the heroine’ is not a subplot, in my opinion, however. I can’t think of when something that important could happen to either of the main characters and not be a part of the main plot. To fit into the ‘Two Subplots, One Love’ idea, we have to ask: Why is the heroine being kidnapped?
For example: Glenda is a reporter and Gunnar is a cop. Glenda is investigating an arms cartel on the docks. The arms dealers find her out and kidnap her. Gunnar has to find her before they kill her. He doesn’t want Glenda to die for several reasons: (1) it’s his duty as a cop, (2) he needs her testimony to solve his case and send the head of the arms cartel to jail, and (3) he’s fallen in love with her despite the fact that he doesn’t want to open up and love someone after the death of his wife.
Glenda wants Gunnar to save her from the kidnappers because (1) she doesn’t want to die, (2) she wants to send the head of the arms cartel to jail, (3) she wants to win that nifty award for her story when she’s the first to crack it, and (4) she’s fallen in love with Gunnar despite the fact that she doesn’t have time for a relationship at this point in her life when she’s trying to forge a journalism career.
However, if one of the secondary characters is kidnapped — let’s say Glenda’s younger brother Gary — then that has potential for being a subplot. Subplots usually involve secondary characters and can intertwine with the main plot because of their relationships to the main characters.
If Gary the investment broker is kidnapped by the arms cartel to lure Glenda to the docks, then it becomes part of the main plot, but if he’s ‘kidnapped’ by his wife Gayle the high-power lawyer for a romantic getaway, then it’s the subplot. Initially distraught over his absence, Glenda learns that even really busy couples can find time for both their careers and their love lives. Both Glenda and Gunnar learn they’re taking things way too seriously and maybe should lighten up a bit. Now you have a hinged subplot affecting the outcome of the main plot.
The subplot with Gary and Gayle can exist in addition to the ‘Two Subplots, One Love’ idea because it comments on, complicates and supports the main plot, which is the love story between Glenda and Gary.
A KNIGHTLY SUBPLOT
To reiterate what was said in the Middles article on subplots, in A KNIGHT’S TALE, the midpoint is interwoven with the subplot. The subplot of A KNIGHT’S TALE is concerning William’s herald, Geoff Chaucer who has a gambling problem.
According to Vogler in THE WRITER’S JOURNEY subplots have at least three ‘beats’ or scenes throughout the story, typically one in each act. The three beats in A KNIGHT’S TALE are as follows:
- The first beat of the subplot scenes is when we meet the naked Geoff ‘trudging’ on the road to Rouen who admits to having been taken for everything he owned. He trades his ability to create ‘patents of nobility’ for William Thatcher in exchange for clean clothes and some food, but ends up sticking with the knightly crew.
- The second beat of the subplot is interwoven with William’s Tests — when William must bail Geoff out of trouble. William must save Geoff from the ‘thugs’ Simon the Summoner and Peter the Pardoner who’ve come to take their money out of his hide.
- The third beat of the subplot is when it seems that Geoff is learning to control his gambling problem, but he really isn’t because he convinces William’s three companions to bet with him on William winning the next tournament.
There are two secondary, a underdeveloped, subplots in A KNIGHT’S TALE concerning Princess Jocelyn and Kate the Armorer. Jocelyn is struggling with being the beautiful-but-unreachable princess and the modern woman while Kate, on the other hand, is a young widow who took over her dead husband’s armoring trade and is out to prove she’s an excellent armorer in his stead. The yarns of Jocelyn and Kate’s stories are left a little unfinished, however, but seem to fit in the overall story nonetheless.
For how-to help on using the ABC method of writing a subplot, visit ‘How To Work a Subplot(s)’ by Chuck Dixon at: http://www.dixonverse.com/subplots.html
Bohnhoff, Maya Kaathryn. ‘Taming the Fictional Wilds,’ Fiction Writer Magazine, April 1999
Grace, Cristine. Top 10 Questions to Ask Yourself as You Begin to Write Your Novel, http://www.eharlequin.com/harl/learntowrite/articles/81art211.htm
Harris, Robert. A Glossary of Literary Terms and A Handbook of Rhetorical Devices, Vanguard University of Southern California, http://www.uky.edu/ArtsSciences/Classics/Harris/rhetform.html
Phillips, Melanie Anne. ‘Subplots,’ Storymind Dramatica, http://storymind.com/dramatica/plot/subplots.htm
Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey. Michel Wiese Productions, 1998.