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


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.

Survivor edited by Mary Anne Mohanraj and JJ Pionke (coming soon from Lethe Press)

11 thoughts on “12.37: Subplots”

  1. Great episode. The last several, in fact, have been pure gold. I’ve been a fan for over a year now — never commented before, but I do feel the need to add my own two cents on this one.

    When I’m outlining, I like to spin my plot threads individually before I try and weave them together. I know what’s an individual plot thread because it only contains plot points that relate directly to the achievement of the end state I have in mind. So recruiting the cat burglar would indeed fall into the plot thread of successfully stealing the McGuffin, as Mary suggested.

    I also give myself a plot point budget. Each scene is nominally a thousand words and each scene ideally contains at least two plot points. For a forty thousand word novella, that’s a budget of eighty plot points. On my current project, I’ve given the main plot thread a budget of thirty-eight points, almost half the total. That’s how I know it’s the main plot thread. The other three plot threads have far fewer plot points allocated to them — hence them being sub-plot threads.

  2. As far as sub-plots vs. parallel plots are concerned, I think a great example of both would be an old British show called Last of the Summer Wine, in particular an episode called “Beware of the Elbow.” I won’t spoil it, but all the plots of the episode seem entirely unrelated until the very end where they come crashing together in a hilarious way.

    In regards to the word “gip,” I had never made the connection between it and the Romani people, likely because whenever I saw it in writing, it was ALWAYS spelled gip not gyp, thus I never realized that it was short for “gypsy.” I always assumed that it was short for some archaic word that meant something along the lines of “hustle,” much like “con artist” is short for “CONfidence artist.” I asked the people I had learned the word “gip” from if they were aware of its history, and none of them were. We all realized that none of us had made the connection… because none of us thought of the Romani people as thieves. We only saw them as a people with a unique culture, that’s it. Another reason we didn’t make the connection was because we didn’t use the term “gypsy.” We all used “Romani.” “Gypsy” in our minds were those caricatures of the Romani you saw in old movies. So, again, we never made the connection because 1) none of us saw the word spelled “gyp” and 2) none of us thought of the Romani people as thieves. We honestly thought the word was just short for a longer, archaic word that meant “hustle” or “con.”

  3. This episode illuminates why Ender’s Game lost some of its luster for me. There’s a whole side-quest where Ender’s older siblings make a play for world domination through blogging and it never seems to intersect with the primary storyline. I kept wondering why it was there.

    (I also had strong doubts about the plausibility of the attempt but those are off-topic)

  4. This one I feel like sharing something from a book I once read called Supporting Character Secrets. Easily one of my favorite books I read when it came to handling support characters. Anyway, there’s something with subplots that stuck with me in it which I feel the sentiment was expressed in this episode and I wish to share it here as, who knows, it might help someone.

    “You know how a prism splits a beam of light into its elements? Subplots do the same thing with the main plot. Each subplot usually explores a different aspect of the main plot, giving your script more scope and allowing you to really dig into your theme. Subplots can keep a story from seeming too
    linear, and at the same time add to that main plot by showing us alternative world and stories that serve to comment on that main story. We want to keep our subplots as splinter beams from the main plot… yet make sure that each has a life and trajectory of its own. That way the subplots can
    “open up” our story and give us all kinds of different viewpoints on the subject at hand, without taking us too far off course.”

  5. While Dan and Howard were off chasing rainbows, the Chicago foursome, Brandon, Mary, Mary Anne, and Wesley, took on subplots, wandering off the Interstate to look at the World’s Largest Ball of Twine! Just what is a subplot, and how does it relate to the main plot? Do side characters need a subplot, or can they just be side kicks in the main plot? These and other questions get chewed over, and you can read all about it in the transcript now in the archives or over here


    Just don’t use Alexander’s solution to the Gordian Knot on your intertwined subplots, okay?

  6. I don’t know if this is strictly considered a parallel story line, but many non-fiction works have a narrow narrative-driven story line coupled with a wider environment story line. The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, is a great example by combining vast amounts of information about the Chicago World’s Fair and a tighter story about a serial killer.

  7. I feel like the tagline should be changed to 20 minutes long because most of the recent episodes have been that length. Also, then they can start inching closer towards 25 minutes long :P

    1. Ephermality,
      Last time I brought this up trend (see comments of episode 12.27), Howard noted that if you take out all the intro/outro/book of the week/etc., there’s still around 15 minutes of actual content presented to us and that’s what they’ve decided to measure the podcast by.

  8. What if rock-collector has a close brother who is a surgeon that hails from a small town turned mythical being called to save the world, and collector’s death is a trigger to brother’s path and inevitable transformaton to this figure? I think you’re onto something, Brandon…

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