Plots with high stakes abound in the dystopian and fantasy genres. You’ve probably encountered stories with vast conflicts that revolve around stopping an evil overlord from plunging the land into unquenchable darkness or a diabolical scientist from mutating the human race. The narratives are full of massive consequences and loads of tension, and have little room for failure.
These plots are rarely unaccompanied by small-scale conflicts. Subplots aid the main plot by creating a faceted theme, developed characters, and emotional range. These side stories, though seemingly small compared to the dominant problem, influence the protagonist’s own life immensely. However, subplots inside the larger narrative must have bearing on the main conflict. They must relate to and affect the overarching storyline and impact how the main character responds to it.
Subplots are all about a protagonist’s relationship with his friends, family members, love interest, authorities, God, nature, and other people who can generate many mini stories that shape him. A side character who is vital to a subplot is, in a sense, the main character of that micro narrative. Her beliefs about the theme collide with the MC’s, creating a worldview clash that forges a subplot.
The Importance of Subplot Connectivity
Subplots that don’t sway the plot feel tacked on and useless to readers. If the smaller story does nothing to influence the larger situation, they will wonder why they’re reading about it when the entire world is in danger.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi had its strong points, but subplot connectivity to the main conflict was not one of them. A major part of the film focused on Finn, Rose, and Poe’s attempts at disabling the First Order’s lightspeed-tracking ability. Their struggle was valiant, but had no effect on the ultimate defeat of the First Order’s fleet or the protagonist’s (Rey’s) inner journey and actions. If the subplot were erased, the First Order’s fleet would still have fallen. If the subplot hadn’t contained characters the audience was willing to follow, the film would have failed, and as it was, the subplot still felt pointless.
Don’t let readers suffer through purposeless subplots. Make them count by forcing subplots and protagonists to interact in a way that alters the course of the conflict.
Subplots that Change the Protagonist
In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup (the MC) has a positive character arc. Throughout the story he learns that he can only save his village and father by drawing on his unique skills and personality. The message of staying true to yourself shines through his arc. However, it’s strengthened by the father-son conflict between Hiccup and Stoic.
Stoic serves as an antagonist during most of the film and pressures his son to become a dragon-slaying Viking. The stress Stoic and the villagers put on Hiccup forms his negative experiment in living. Hiccup believes he must become someone he is not to be valuable. Their expectations influence many of his actions, including his capture of Toothless.
Because Hiccup’s character arc governs his actions (which are inseparable from the plot), Stoic indirectly affects the plot by influencing Hiccup’s character arc. Through this, Stoic highlights the theme as well. Since the story’s relationships alter the MC’s behavior, the subplot has worth.
You can find good subplots like these by giving your characters incompatible experiments in living. Their differing viewpoints will stir conflict in their relationships. Progress the conflict according to how the characters’ beliefs transform and you have a subplot. Use the various experiments to sharpen your MC and side characters until they reach the conclusion the story intends for them.
Protagonists that Change the Subplots
Subplots can also link to the main story through the direct actions of side characters. In the example of Hiccup, he was influenced by the side characters, who in turn drove the overarching conflict. But the reverse is effective as well. The MC can trigger the actions of the subplot’s characters, who then move the plot. When you combine this with the above strategy, the MC and the side characters both propel the plot via each other’s guidance.
At the beginning of the film, Stoic steers Hiccup’s character arc and spawns his son’s negative experiment in living. As we saw above, Hiccup acted on his negative experiment and shot down Toothless, jumpstarting their friendship and the plot. Stoic compelled Hiccup to act because he influenced Hiccup’s beliefs. When Hiccup decides to embrace his differences, their roles flip and Stoic changes. After seeing Hiccup work with the dragons, Stoic believes in his son and saves Hiccup’s dragon during the climax. This time Hiccup’s convictions impact his father’s, and their relationship relates to the main conflict in a meaningful way.
Subplots will not only deepen your characters, theme, and relationships, but will also manipulate your plot and become an indispensable part of the story. No more useless threads or needless words. If you employ the tactics above, your subplots will help hold together a seamless, enjoyable narrative.