Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

12.37: Subplots

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Mary Anne, and Wesley

What makes a plot a subplot? Must subplots and main plots be linked by something more binding than the actual binding of the book?

In this episode we answer these questions, and ask and answer plenty more.

Credits: This episode was recorded in Chicago by Andrew Twiss, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Consider the following four things – environment, characters, disruptions of status quo, and questions, and which one of these is driving your main plot. Now ask which of the remaining three can contain a disaster that drives a subplot. Write that bit.

Thing of the week: Survivor edited by Mary Anne Mohanraj and JJ Pionke (coming soon from Lethe Press).

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Subplots usually carry less emotional weight. The subplot’s inciting incident starts after the main plot inciting incident. Subplots often are related to the main plot in some way. Sometimes the real emotional resonance is in the subplots. But beware of subplots that lead the reader too far from the main plot. The main plot needs to move forward. Subplots should be in service to the larger story. Sometimes you can spin a subplot that isn’t needed off into a separate short story. Subplots don’t necessarily have to be related to the main plot, but they should intersect. So look for the intersections that are interesting, that complicate or change the story. How can a subplot change the character’s plans? How can the subplot support the main plot? Using MACE, try to look for a subplot that is in a different category from your main plot, to get interesting intersections. If you can remove the entire subplot and it doesn’t affect the story, then the subplot doesn’t belong there. Although it may illuminate the character or world… Subplots let you pull solutions for problems from them. Beware of having it be too convenient! Do side characters need a subplot fo their own? Not necessarily, although it is one way to flesh out a character. But sometimes, you just let them achieve goals offstage.

[Mary] Season 12, Episode 37.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Subplots.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Mary Anne] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Wesley] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Mary Anne] I’m Mary Anne.
[Wesley] And I’m Wesley.

[Brandon] We’re talking subplots today. So, what makes something a subplot instead of the main plot of a story?
[Mary] So it… For me, it carries less emotional weight, usually. It’s not the main driver, and usually the events… The subplot’s inciting incident starts off after the main inciting incident.
[Brandon] That’s a good definition.
[Wesley] I think it’s important that subplots are related to the main plot in some way. But, then, I also, like when I write my characters, I always think nobody in the world thinks about one thing all the time. We’re always multitasking in some way. The things that we multitask affect us. So that’s what the subplots are for, is…
[Brandon] I would agree that a lot of the good subplots will relate to the main plot. I don’t think all of them have to, but I think some of the most powerful ones… For instance, if you have a plot where two characters or a group of characters have to learn to get along before they can accomplish the goal, then the interpersonal relationship between each of them is a subplot, but it’s also an essential step toward accomplishing the main plot. In some ways, fulfilling those subplots is the thing that needs to happen. Like, we get the big cheer when the main plot is done, but if you think of something like Guardians of the Galaxy, the real emotional resonance is the subplots of the characters getting along.

[Mary Anne] I would… As a reader, I will say that I get irritated, I think, when I run across subplots that are leading me too far away from the main plot. Even if there compelling in and of themselves.
[Brandon] How can you define one that is leading us too far away? Is there anything you can give us to spot it in our own work?
[Mary Anne] Ha ha. That’s going to be tricky to…
[Brandon] I’ll talk for a second and you can think about it.
[Mary Anne] Go ahead. I’ll think about it.
[Brandon] Because this is a complaint leveled at a lot of epic fantasy. Robert Jordan, George RR Martin, the long series… Everyone loves the long series, but it seems like a Catch-22, because they’ll complain about them at the same time, saying, “Too many subplots.” I just wonder if it’s a matter of expectations. You expect to read about main characters and you get too much about side characters, or things like this.
[Wesley] I think the concern is that when you have too many subplots… The subplots maybe are there for character development, and that’s great, but when you have too many, and you’re not pushing the main plot forward, that’s… I think that’s where the readers are complaining. Where their complaints are coming from. You’re bogging down the story way too much.
[Mary Anne] I think it’s a question of choice, right? Like, as writers, we can spin off on infinity of subplots, right? We could be… I can come up with story after story after story about any given character. So then you have to make decisions about which stories you’re choosing to tell right now. Presumably, the ones that you are presenting to the reader are going to be in service to the larger story you’re trying to tell.
[Brandon] Progress is an illusion, and you have absolute control over that. You need to make sure that illusion doesn’t break.
[Mary] For me, it is related not just to the… How it intersects with the main story, but the proportion of time that you spend on it. So the example that I use a lot is that the plot is kind of like your roadmap between Chicago and Chattanooga, and you can drive along and you know that okay, I’m going to have to take a bathroom break, and this is coming out about the point that I need to take a bathroom break, there’s a sign that says World’s Largest Ball of Twine. You check your map and it’s 5 miles off the Interstate. You’re like, “I have to stop anyway. This is totally worth it.” That’s a subplot that can enrich the trip because it makes it a little more interesting. If it is 500 miles off the Interstate, that is not a subplot worth taking, because it is, in fact, a ball of twine.

[Mary Anne] Can I…
[Brandon] Go ahead.
[Mary Anne] I would just add that one thing I’ve done to satisfy my own writerly whateverness is if I’m desperate to write that subplot that probably shouldn’t be there, I will spin it off into a separate short story. So… Maybe that’s because I’m a short story writer, but I’ve done that kind of over and over again, and it like… It lets me scratch the itch without destroying the book.
[Brandon] I think in the e-book era, that’s particularly useful to do, because even if it’s not something that you’re going to sell, fans love this stuff. Putting it up and saying, “Hey, here’s an extra little scene about this character that didn’t make it in the book.” That’s the sort of beautiful thing that we can do with our writing these days that was much harder before the Internet.
[Mary Anne] I used to send notes to Ellen Kushner saying… Because I loved Swordspoint, it was formative to me, and she was not turning out new novels fast enough in that universe. I’d write to her saying, “Do you have a scene? Just a little scene between Alec and Richard? I just want to see them. What are they doing?”
[Wesley] I mean, a subplot can be a darling. We know, sometimes, we have a tendency to fall into the trap of like we are so clever… This is such a great little idea, and we are so clever, so we are going to make it into the book no matter what. That’s always a problem.

[Brandon] Yeah. I would agree with that 100%. How do you take one of these and weave it into the main plot, then, without it being distracting? Any specifics, writing wise?
[Mary] So, I look at ways that the… I feel like the subplot does not necessarily have to be related to the main plot, but that it should intersect the main plot.
[Brandon] Okay. That’s a good way to put it.
[Mary] And that those intersections are going to affect the main plot. So for me, what I look for are the places where that intersection can be most interesting, where it can complicate things for my character. We had… I talked with Margaret Dunlop, who talked about the difference between a complication and an obstacle. An obstacle is basically something that stops the story, and a complication is something that changes the story. So when I’m looking for the subplots, I’m much more interested in them being a complication than I am in them being an obstacle. I’m looking for ways in which the subplot can change my character’s plans.

[Wesley] I look at subplots as a way to support the main plot. If I need to steal this diamond from this museum, I make a detour to recruit a cat burglar to help me. To do this, I need to go through these kinds of hoops. But at the end of the day, recruiting this cat burglar is part of my main plot, to…
[Mary] See, I wouldn’t call that a subplot, personally. I would call that part of the main plot. But this is the way I…
[Brandon] Maybe you recruit… I agree with Mary. You recruit the cat burglar, but then the cat burglar feels gypped by you and runs off and is then going to tell the police… That becomes a subplot, right? The… Getting the cat burglar has helped you get to the main story, but then they become a complication later on.
[Mary] So let me just…
[Wesley] I was actually going to add that the cat burglar was an ex-girlfriend after that, but…
[Brandon] Yeah, yeah.
[Mary] Oh, okay.
[Wesley] I was totally going to add that part of it. I was just kind of like wait a minute. That… I missed that part.

[Mary] No, that’s a really good example of the difference between something that is part of the main plot and part of the subplot, that the subplot is your character’s relationship with ex-girlfriend. That’s the subplot. The intersection is the way that affects the recruiting of the cat burglar. This is, I think, what happens to a lot of writers when they are looking for a subplot is they pick something that is too closely aligned to their main driver or they pick something that is too far away. One thing that I think about when I’m using the MACE quotient, which is Milieu, Answers, Characters, and Events, is that when I’m looking for a subplot, I try to look for a subplot that isn’t in the same category as the main plot. Because then what I have is two drivers that are running parallel, and they don’t tend to intersect. So what happens is like when you jump over to the other subplot, if plot A is we need to get out of this jail and plot B is across town, someone is working on a building, and those two things have nothing to do with each other? Every time we go over to the building, we’re like, “I don’t care about the building. Do not care about the building.” It feels like a distraction. Whereas if the subplot had been… we need to get out of this jail, and the subplot is we need to figure out who framed us, if it’s an answer thing. These two things can intersect in interesting ways.
[Brandon] Promises come into this, again, doesn’t it. I’ve found that weaving in a subplot works best when the character’s got passion. It’s this thing that you come back to, character focus. I guess it’s about promises, also. But this idea that we’ve known all along this character is really passionate about collecting these rocks, and even though it’s going to be a distraction sometimes, we’re like we’re on board with this. Because we love this character, we love what they are passionate about. If we can follow their passion, then we get fulfilled. But the important part is, I can’t remember who said this on the podcast here, we need it to affect things. We need the fact that that character has gotten that rock… I’m thinking of something completely ridiculous… Has gotten that rock improves their outlook on life. They’re like, “I have my lucky rock now, I have the confidence to accomplish what I need to.” It doesn’t have to be some great character moment like that, but I really like it when it ties in even a little bit.
[Mary] Well, with something like that…
[Wesley] I think it has to tie in a little bit, though. Because if not, then if you remove that entire subplot, and it doesn’t affect the story whatsoever…
[Mary Anne] It shouldn’t be there.
[Wesley] It shouldn’t be there.
[Mary] I think when we’re talking about short fiction, absolutely true. When we’re talking about novel, if it’s there to illuminate the character, you can argue that that is part of the…
[Brandon] If you can illuminate the character, the world… Like, I have, in the Stormlight Archives, I have short stories in between sections of books that only very slightly relate. They’re mostly, “Hey, this other part of the world exists. Keep that in mind.” They don’t relate to the main plot. I’m writing thousand page books, so I can get away with that.
[Mary Anne] But I would say, I haven’t actually read this, but to me, that sounds like a really interesting experimental form, what you’re doing. I think that’s great. It is not what most long novels look like.
[Brandon] No. It is not. That is true. Mary, we interrupted you.
[Mary] Yes, you did.

[Brandon] That was so mean of us. Should I do it again and do the book of the week, or do you got…
[Mary] Do the book of the week, because I can’t remember what it was I was going to say.
[Brandon] Mary Anne, you were going to pitch a collection of yours.
[Mary Anne] Well, it’s an anthology, actually.
[Brandon] Anthology. Oh, you edited it.
[Mary Anne] That I edited. So, this is Survivor. It’s coming out from Lethe Press. This book emerged because a friend and I, JJ Poinke and I, were talking about trauma and about how people recover from trauma. We were doing this in a variety of contexts, we were talking about mental illness and PTSD, we were talking about domestic violence, my own research into the war in Sri Lanka, war stories, military experiences. We realized that there was this sort of common thread that we were both really interested in. JJ’s interested in bullying and the effects of that. So we put out this call for stories of… Science fiction/fantasy stories about trauma and survival. We’re really… We’re interested in sort of the path that these characters took to a place where they could not just survive, but thrive. It’s not a self-help book. It’s not… They’re not even all happy ending stories. But we wanted to kind of present these ways of looking at it. I think it… It ended up being a really interesting collection. It’s a mix of military stories, domestic stories, and just general adventure stories. I think there’s going to be a lot of meat there for people to enjoy. I’m really… I’m excited about it. I’m super excited.
[Brandon] Awesome. Well, you guys should look at that. It’s called Survivor.

[Brandon] All right, Mary.
[Mary] I’ve remembered. Okay. So this is one of the advantages to subplots. It’s related to the example of the rock collector. That when you get farther down the story, you can pull solutions to different problems from any of the subplots that are in play, as opposed to only having one subplot… One plot that you can pull solutions from. So, for instance, let’s say we’ve got this rock collector. But the main plot is zombie apocalypse. So the rock collector is constantly… He’s collected this rock, it makes him feel safer, it has no practical function. People are giving him grief, because like you could be carrying supplies, and you’re carrying a rock. He’s like, “I know, but look, it’s this amazing thing.” If one of the other subplots is there’s a baseball player who’s with the group and he feels completely useless because he’s a professional baseball player and has no survival skills. Zombie comes. He takes the guy’s favorite rock and throws it at the zombie.
[Mary] That then combines your solution from these two different subplots, that’s the kind of intersection that can make a story spark and more interesting.
[Mary Anne] Can I ask? That doesn’t feel too convenient? I worry about that. This is one of those things that I’m always fretting about.
[Brandon] Yes. Convenience is something that we do worry about. I think you could make that one work by… Give me your stupid rock! No, I’m not going to… You could play it for laughs. You see what I’m saying?
[Wesley] I mean, it feels like a… That’s a subplot that supports the main plot, and that totally works for me. There’s often when I see a subplot that just kind of ends without… I mean, when I read a subplot, I’m thinking, “This will be important down the line, because I don’t know why else it’s here.” If it doesn’t… If I get no payoff from that, by the end of the book, or by the end of the series, then I’m going to be like, “Why was that even there?”

[Brandon] Well, let me pitch you a form, not a rock, a form of storytelling that is super common where the subplot doesn’t affect. That’s the Hollywood A plot B plot method, which is… A lot of sitcoms use this, a lot of dramas use this. There is a main plot with a main cast of characters, and then there is a secondary cast who hijinks ensue. By the time the main characters get back, all the hijinks have been un-ensued and everything’s back to normal. This happened… The television show Chuck did this. There was the A plot, where super spies, B plot, all the goofy people who work at the superstore doing stuff. Most dramas do this.
[Mary] That actually does serve a function.
[Brandon] It totally does.
[Mary] Not just in terms of pacing, but in terms of… Because that is… TV series are longform narratives, and it serves the function of keeping characters active in the viewers’ minds. So it is not without function.
[Brandon] It isn’t without function, but those characters are never involved in the spy plot.
[Mary Anne] But they’re usually… I feel like when I watch these shows… I mean, I watch Grey’s Anatomy, for example, and they have that kind of structure. But they’re usually thematically related, for any given episode.
[Brandon] Yeah, they will do that. That’s true.
[Mary Anne] So. I mean, there’s a connection. It’s not that the action in one sequence is affecting the action in the other. It’s not. But the writers are choosing to tell these two stories at the same time, because they’re emotionally resonant with each other.
[Mary] I actually feel like in those cases, that’s less… I mean, I know that A plot, B plot, that technically it is a subplot, but I almost feel more like structurally what you’re looking at is two unrelated interwoven stories.
[Wesley] Parallel plots.
[Parallel plots]
[Wesley] I watched Grey’s Anatomy… I used to watch Grey’s Anatomy…
[Wesley] But I, Grey’s Anatomy always had like three or four plots of these characters, and, I mean, there’s always a theme in every episode, but I never feel like there’s one main plot and a couple minor plots. It’s two or three plots.
[Mary Anne] It’s an ensemble.
[Wesley] That an ensemble cast is doing…
[Mary] The novel that does this beautifully, it’s called My Name Is Red, and I’ve forgotten the author’s name. It’s fantastic. But it’s a whole bunch of miniature stories that are all connected, and also all totally separate.
[Mary Anne] There is also that great Christmas movie, that people love to hate. I’m blinking on the title, it’s got like 12 intersecting romance stories.
[Wesley] Oh, I hate that movie.
[Mary Anne] I know, I know.
[Mary] My niece loves it, and I can’t remember the name of it.
[Brandon] All right. Let’s move on from this, though. I am convinced that’s just two parallel stories.
[Mary] Love, actually.
[Mary Anne] Love, actually.

[Brandon] But what about side characters? Does every side character in a story… Let’s say you’re writing a novel. Do they each need a subplot of their own to make them work?
[Mary] I feel like… It depends on… We’re talking secondary characters, not tertiary. I feel like secondary characters are most interesting when they have their own goals. Those goals do not necessarily have to affect the main plot. They don’t… Like I sometimes will have characters who have goals and they achieve them offstage and we just know that these side plots happen offstage. I like reading books like that. I feel like it makes the characters more complete, and it gives the sense of a larger world. Do I think it’s necessary? No. I’ve seen plenty of stories that don’t do that and they’re perfectly fine. But as a reader, I find that a more fulfilling experience.
[Mary Anne] I don’t want spear carriers, right? I want to have a sense that these people have their own missions. I mean, think of something like The Lord of the Rings. Merry and Pippin at the beginning are just kind of generic additional hobbits, right? But by the time you get to the end, they have become… They have developed their own desires, have followed them, which have turned out to be completely critical to the overall arc.
[Wesley] I think it helps. I don’t think it’s necessary. I think if you can describe a spear carrier that is always with a main character, but you flesh them out so that he has his own personality, his own thoughts, his own history, you don’t need to send him off on his own subplot, as long as you really spend time building him up, him or her up.

[Brandon] All right. Well, let’s go ahead and get some homework.
[Wesley] Okay. So, your homework for the week is, let’s say that four major things will drive a story. They are environment, characters, disruption of the status quo, and questions. Take a piece, look at your main plot, and decide which of these main four things it is. Then ask which of the remaining three things can go wrong. Make one of them your subplot.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go right.

[Brandon] So, listeners. I used the word gypped in this podcast. It’s a word I’ve been trying to eliminate from my vocabulary. We thought rather than just cutting it out, I would put this little thing on here. This is one of those words that wiggles its way into your dialogue which you don’t realize it is deeply offensive to people. So I want to apologize to the Roma people who might be listening. I’m trying to get rid of it. If those who don’t know, it actually means Gypsy ripping off, because Gypsies were seen as people who would rip you off. It is an offensive racial stereotype. So, I apologize for using that. I thank you guys for continuing to listen even through the mistakes that we occasionally make.