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Story Structure – Part 10: The Art of the Subplot (part 2)

You can read the rest of the Story Structure series here:

Part 1 – Story Structure: Beginnings
Part 2 – Revisiting the Three-Act Structure
Part 3 – In the Beginning…
Part 4 – Propel Yourself into the Middle
Part 5 – Mushy Middle Syndrome
Part 6 – The Meandering Middle
Part 7 – The Wispy Middle
Part 8 – The Cramped Middle
Part 9 – The Art of the Subplot – Part 1

Two weeks ago, I talked in very general terms about the things a good subplot can do to add layers, subtext, and richness to your story. This week, I want to get a little more specific about the structure of a subplot.

Now, a lot of people who give advice on writing will say that a subplot should be structured basically like a main plot, only on a smaller scale. They’ll tell you it should have a clear protagonist and antagonist; a beginning, middle, and end with a climax and denouement; and obvious character arcs, plot points, and reversals. I’m here to say – Sort of.

Hear me out.

Subplots don’t have to be neatly tied up.
If you’re reading this article, you probably write some kind of fantasy or speculative fiction. Our genre is rather unique in the sense that our stories often arc over a series of several books. Not everything is wrapped up after one book. And many times, the subplots plant seeds for future books. They shouldn’t be wrapped up.

But even in books that can stand alone in a series, a subplot doesn’t always need to be wrapped up or have a clear end. In many mysteries or thrillers with a central character, the main plot of the story might be a crime to solve, but in the subplot, the detective might be dealing with marital problems, or flirting with a new romance, or tussling with the mean police commissioner. Those subplots don’t have to be wrapped up at the end, but they can be used to show character changes or life issues that influence the detective in the remainder of the story.

Subplots don’t have to follow standard story structure.
Your whole subplot can be one large arc rather than three or four small ones with precisely placed plot points and reversals. Or, it could be a number of plot points interwoven with your main plot. Or – You get the idea. Your subplot can be woven so neatly into your main plot that it might have no recognizable structure of its own, or it might be so close to a stand-alone story that you can play with adding reversals and twists that simply highlight the reversals and twists of your main plot.

Subplots are allowed to defy the conventions of genre.
Take a romance, for instance. It’s a well-established convention of that genre that Boy and Girl should get their Happily Ever After (HEA). But, I’ve read romances where the characters in the subplots did not get a HEA. Maybe the main female character’s sister breaks up with her deadbeat boyfriend, or maybe the main male character’s best friend grows enough as a character to finally ask out the girl he’s been pining for in his subplot. There’s no guarantee of the HEA in those subplots, but they can both be satisfying endings.

In fantasy, a subplot might defy convention of the genre or the world by killing off a character who seemed important to the main plot (a la George R. R. Martin). Such a result tells the reader “the good guys don’t always win”. Or maybe, in a world full of magic, a character in a subplot defies the convention of the world by succeeding against all odds without magic.

Really, it can be argued that any plot—main or sub—can defy conventions of the genre. It’s just a little easier to be experimental in a subplot, especially if you’re uncomfortable defying genre conventions in the main plot.

Subplots are allowed to use other characters in different ways.
Every character is the protagonist of his or her own story, of course, but that means the character can be the antagonist of someone else’s story. A subplot is a perfect way to make one of your characters serve a different purpose elsewhere.

Say you have a pretty classic Good Guy (GG) in your main plot, and his antagonist is the Evil Wizard (EW). So far, pretty conventional, right? But say in your subplot, you have GG’s Noble Sister (NS), the queen of their fair land. And really, she’s a pretty good queen, and people generally like her. Except…In this subplot, GG has some Well-Meaning Cronies (WMCs) who want to put GG on the throne. GG thinks that’s a pretty good plan, and while he’s off fighting EW, he’s also sending instructions back to his WMCs to make life miserable for his NS. In that subplot, GG could come off looking pretty ugly, and he’s the antagonist for the NS who’s just trying to hold her throne. That can add a lot of layers and nuances to your main plot. Suddenly, his actions against EW look a little different, and we wonder if EW is really so evil after all.

You don’t have to wrap up that subplot, either. Maybe even though GG is the protagonist of your story overall, NS might defeat him in the subplot. She holds her throne, and that sets up a new challenge for the next installment of your story where either person could be the protagonist.

Whatever the length of your story, play around with some subplots. Pair up different characters’ needs and wants. Look for foils who can highlight other characters’ strengths and weaknesses. Try out different endings and conventions. You’ll give your story depth, richness, and strength, and your readers will thank you for it.

In two weeks: Climax and Denouement.

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7 Comments

  1. Honestly, this was very enriching. I had no clue you could do that with subplot, and it’s nice to see that bending the rules or going against conventions could actually create an original story with interesting and dynamic characters. I never considered that, and I’m really happy I read this. It’s awesome.

  2. […] can continue reading Amy’s subplot series here. VN:F [1.9.20_1166]please wait…Rating: 9.6/10 (5 votes cast)Story Structure – Part 9: The Art […]

  3. I’m writing my first book your series has been amazingly helpful. Thank you very much.

  4. Avatar Sydney Skully says:

    This is the first thing that address my questions after a year. Do you have a book or more readable format?
    Is this a working blog?

    My concerns are: 1) I have the State (the Soviet Union) as the antagonist. How to personify it?
    2) The subplot. There is so much background information that I don’t know how to assimilate it. Could I write one chapter of the protag followed by one chapter of the mother, then protag, then father?
    3) In the 3 act structure, I’m struggling with the middle–the STRUGGLE. How do I put all of these elements in order? 4) How do I find out more information about these questions?
    I’m anxiously awaiting your reply.
    Sydney in Michigan.

  5. Avatar David says:

    Thank you for this.

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