Story Structure – Part 9: The Art of the Subplot
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
Anyone who knows me for more than about five minutes will probably hear me quote the movie The Princess Bride at least once. While I love the story of Buttercup, Westley, and Humperdinck, but I actually find the subplot around Inigo Montoya and his desire for revenge much more compelling.
At its heart, the main plot of Buttercup and Westley is just a love story—one with fire swamps, deadly duels, torture, and ROUSes, to be sure—but the story of Montoya and his need to avenge his father’s murder at the hands of Count Rugen (the Six-Fingered Man) is a deeply satisfying plot in itself. Consider the elements that make Montoya’s story so compelling:
Clear Story Elements
In Montoya’s story, there is a clear protagonist and antagonist. It has its own arc, its own intervals, and its own climax. Montoya has setbacks of his own to overcome, and there is a resolution to the story.
Montoya isn’t perfect. He’s a drunk. He helps kidnap a princess and tries to murder the man who comes to rescue her. He’s driven by a need for vengeance, which, while compelling, isn’t the most noble motive. But he’s also wily, courageous, funny, and loyal. It’s easy to identify with him, but he still stands out as a unique character.
One of the best things about Montoya’s story, I think, is its imperfect resolution. He succeeds in getting revenge, but he realizes that his whole life has been centered around the need for vengeance. When he finally achieves that, there’s something of a sense of hollowness to the victory, and Montoya admits that he’s been in the revenge business so long, he no longer knows what to do. (By the way, I always thought it would be fantastic to have a sequel to the movie that gave us Inigo Montoya’s development into the Dread Pirate Roberts.)
Writing a compelling subplot is as much an art as writing a compelling main plot, I think—and in fact, it might even be a more challenging task. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to talk about the function of a subplot and how to make your subplot resonate with readers and give depth to your stories.
Why include a subplot?
There are many reasons to use a subplot in your stories. Here are just a few.
Provide foils for your main plot. A foil is a literary term derived from the old practice of placing a thin piece of metal behind a gemstone to make it shine more brightly. This is essentially what a subplot can do for your main plot. Use the characters in your subplot to make your main characters shine brighter.
Reveal information relevant to the main plot. Especially in wide-sweeping, epic works, you can use subplots to reveal tidbits of information that might be important in the main plot later on. In A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin drops little hints and clues into subplots all the time, and devotees of the series pick up on them and analyze them all over the Internet. Or, you can use subplots to move characters into positions where they’ll be needed later on—another thing Martin does masterfully.
Comic relief. A time-honored tradition—use the subplots and rude mechanicals to give your reader a break after the intense drama of your main plot. If it was good enough for the Greeks and Shakespeare, you can do it, too. Think of Dogberry from Much Ado About Nothing. He and his night watch make their first comic appearance right after Don John tells Claudio that Hero is cheating on him. The subplot of the night watch is thin, but it’s fun to watch and ultimately important to the main plot.
Highlight themes from the main plot. It’s not ideal to be heavy-handed with anything in fiction, but if you have a recurring theme in your work, you can sometimes highlight it better through a subplot than through the main plot.
Help drive the main plot. In my novella Servant of Dreams, the protagonist, Miara, is a servant with very little power or control over her life. She’s not a driver. The person who drives the plot is the noblewoman she serves. Miara’s story arc is accomplished in part through the actions of the noblewoman, Lu Shi. But Lu Shi has a story of her own: She’s being forced by treaty to wed an enemy, and she feels as powerless as her own servant does. Her quest to find out whether she will ever have any control over her own life drives the plot forward. The subplot and plot are so inextricably twined that to try to separate them would make both stories just fragments.
Subplots can function within the main plot of your story in many different ways, from being minor side stories with minimal influence on the plot, to being almost a dual main plot—one so inextricable that either story would be incomplete without the other. In the coming weeks, I’ll look more at subplots—how to craft them, use them, and make them compelling in their own right.
You can continue reading Amy’s subplot series here.