Every story has a central plot. This is the main character’s goal or objective in the story. It is introduced in the beginning and is what the climax and ending revolve around.
But if a story focuses only on one thing it can be boring. Who wants to watch Frodo walking to Mordor for 9 hours? That would be boring! We want action and romance and magic and suspense!
That is why we have subplots. These are secondary plots that are all related to the central plot in some way, but are allowed to branch off in other directions.
If you want to create an amazing story, you will have to make it interesting.
Subplots are crucial to adding that extra bit of flare to your book.
If you wont take my word for it, just think of the subplots in your favorite stories. Do they make the story more interesting?
Hint: The answer should always be yes.
Case study on subplots
My favorite aspect of storytelling is to research sub-plotting. What I found, is that great subplots create stories with the most fulfilling endings.
The stories with the most fulfilling ending are the ones that have a climax that has perfectly interwoven the subplots into the plot and the big reveal is explained when they all come together.
For my research I looked for the most successful fiction novels to try to understand what made them so successful.
I went to wikipedia and found a list of the most popular books based on best sellers and most copies sold.
Of the best books in modern times, the Harry Potter series blew away all competition. I decided I should analyze one of JK Rowlings famous novels (makes sense I guess, she is only the best selling author ever).
After looking at reviews, I found that readers gave the third book (Prisoner of Azkaban) the second highest ratings. Since it is much shorter -and luckily I already had the book- I grabbed it off my bookshelf along with a pen and paper and started looking for patterns.
What I found was this:
Main plot of book #3
The central plot of the third Harry Potter book is Harry and his Godfather Serious Black who has recently escaped from the highest security prison in England, called Azkaban. Rumors tell that before his escape, Serious Black muttered one thing in his sleep. Harry Potter. Who is Serious Black and why is he coming after Harry Potter?
Major Subplots of book #3
- Hogsmede: Harry must get a signature for permission to leave the school grounds. The only people that can grant this, are his blood relatives and his godfather. All sorts of magical goodies reside here, not to mention the shrieking shack.
- Marauders map: Fred and George give Harry a special map with locations of more than several passages in and out of the school.
- Pets: Ron’s rat and Hermione’s cat are constantly at odds.
- Dementors: Though on the lookout for the escaped criminal, they seem more interested in Harry, who must learn to defend himself against them.
- Malfoy and Snape(antagonists): Whether it is for detention or depletion of house points, these two always have it out for Harry and love giving him a hard time.
- Quidditch: THE game amongst wizards. Will this finally be the year Gryffindor win the cup?
- Divination: This jab to astrology comes full of omens and prophecies depicting Harry’s misfortune. Well, that and whats going to happen in the story.
- Professor Lupin: The new defense against the dark arts teacher sure gets sick a lot. A shroud of mystery surrounds this character including a friendship to Harry’s father – and godfather.
- Classes: Partly general part of the story, partly Hermione’s time turner plot twist.
- Hagrid: In his first year teaching at Hogwarts, his beloved hippogriff Buckbeak is sentenced to death. Will a defense appeal be enough to save our feathered friend.
What does this tell us?
You can create an amazing ending to your story if you are constantly working on subplots. They are always involved with the story and create a much more impactful ending.
Another example of using subplot
Image there are two characters, each with their own subplot. One wanted to learn the guitar because they are old and sick of being a mercenary. The other stopped their current adventure to save a trapped baby bird tangle by a snare.
Later on in the story, these characters use the knowledge they gained from their subplot experiences to help them over come a conflict. the knight who learned music used it to pacify a dragon, and the other rode the -now grown- bird to get to the treasure.
Number of Subplots and Length of your story
The more subplots there are in a story, the longer it will be. This is because each subplot should have enough time spent on it to have significance.
If you have only a couple subplots, your book will be very short.
In fact, short stories only have around one or two subplots. Novels on the other-hand, have at least a handful.
Tie Subplots to Themes
By incorporating a theme into a subplot it makes the ending more satisfying and can help your creativity.
Let me explain.
Themes can help make a subplot have a more emotional ending and give a sense of fulfillment from reader gaining the knowledge and understanding of a universal truth.
This helps with creativity because it allows you to directly apply ideas associated with your theme to your subplot.
Example 1: Have a subplot of finding out who the culprit of a murder is with the theme of doing good things will lead good thing to you.
The character happens to give money to a homeless person early in the story, then in the climax, that homeless person shares their appreciation and goes out of their way to give your character the key to solving the mystery.
Example 2: Subplot of a poker game the main character plays in order to win a car so he can leave the desert. Combine that win a theme of cheating always leads to getting caught.
The main character doesn’t win because they aren’t a cheater and wont use fake cards another man in the casino offered. Main character leaves. In the morning he learns that the man who cheated, also cheated against another person who slit his throat while asleep. Main character finds an envelop with keys and a note that says “He cheated us, so I cheated him of his life.”