Writing Basics: Plot and Subplot

Often times, we use the word plot when discussing stories, but the term is not always used correctly. All stories have plots – that’s what makes them stories and not just character studies or events in the life of characters. Plots carry the story from beginning to middle to end, hopefully in a satisfactory way. But what about subplots? How do we describe subplots and what role do they play in stories? Here’s a handy guide for you to consider.

Plot – The Main Road Traveled in a Story

The best way to understand the concept of plots is to think of them as the road a story travels on a trip from beginning to the end of the story. The plot’s path may deviate from what is expected from time to time, but that is not necessarily part of the plot itself. While the little stops and turns and side-journeys may be important for telling the whole story, they are not part of the main plot.

For example, if a road trip itself was a story (which is often done in books and movies), then the main plot of the story consists of the reason the characters go on the road trip, the road trip itself and then the inevitable arrival (or failure to arrive) at the destination.

A good example of a story’s plot like this is the movie National Lampoon’s Vacation. The main plot of the story is the road trip taken. Clark Griswold wants to take his family on a trip to see an amusement park halfway across the country, they drives there, he reaches his destination and the park is closed so he’s left to decide how to make the best of the situation. That’s it. That’s the main plot of the story.

Subplot – The Side Stories that Enrich the Story

Now, if nothing wrong ever happened in National Lampoon’s Vacation and the trip never got sidetracked, it would very likely be a boring story to watch. Thankfully, subplots take place that make the journey more worthwhile for the audience.

The family stops at the home of Clark’s wife’s cousin and her husband where they pressure Clark to take a cranky aunt and her mean dog along with them to drop them off in Phoenix, Arizona. The subplot of what happens on Aunt Edna’s trip to Phoenix is itself a plot and has beginning, middle and end just like the main plot does – ultimately resulting in Aunt Edna’s death. This affects the story by adding a bump along the road of the main plot, but it is separate from the main plot of Clark Griswold takes his family to Walley World.

Subplots can and absolutely should interact in some way with the main plot. Otherwise, what is the point of including the subplot? Especially in longer narrative like television shows or books, subplots are used for a variety of reasons like introducing a new character, adding depth to certain characters, foreshadowing, underscoring a common theme in the story, etc.

Plot and Subplot Working Together

In a well-told story, subplots work with the main plot in order to bring about a more rewarding ending.

Each subplot that happens in National Lampoon’s Vacation acts as a way to make the journey across the country more difficult for the main characters. When Clark Griswold arrives and sees that Walley World is closed for repairs, he buys a realistic-looking BB gun and threatens the guard to let them in so they can enjoy the park.

Without all of the hardships they faced along the way via the subplots, it would seem very inorganic for Clark to do such a thing. However, because we see how much of a struggle it was to get there due to the subplots, we believe his actions have merit or at least we understand why he did such a thing.

With the subplots resolving in Clark’s madness at the end, we are then able to come to the ultimate end of the main plot – the owner takes pity on Clark and relates to his struggles via the subplots, and lets them all in to enjoy the park.

This was just one example of plot and subplot, but there are many other forms and interactions that are possible. Ultimately, as writers we must decide what the main plot of our story is, and what are subplots.

Specific Examples of Subplots

In the book I’m working on Oro Goro, the main plot of the story is that a demon wants to kidnap one of the main characters, so the characters know they need to get rid of it somehow to save her. All of the little subplots that happen, told through all of the different character perspectives, eventually add up and cause drastic consequences to the story.

Here are many of the subplots of the story:

  • Tim’s brother disappearing as a child and the truth of what happened coming to light
  • Andy and Kristin’s love story and Andy’s reluctance to commit to marriage
  • Miller’s jealousy of Danny as Andy’s friend
  • Ben’s sudden disappearance
  • Danny’s friend Terry and his disappearance
  • Danny’s obsession with conspiracies and what ultimately happens to him
  • Andy needing to pick a Best Man
  • The reappearance of the demon and how each character chooses to deal with it

Each of these subplots plays a part in the story and ultimate resolution. Many of the subplots resolve somewhere long before the end of the main plot, but each of them adds something to the story. Without all of these subplots, the story would simply be about a demon terrorizing some people, them running away, and coming back to face it.

The subplots are where we learn the most about our characters, both as an audience and as writers. Use them wisely and you will reap the rewards.

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