What is a Subplot?

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Margo
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Re: What is a Subplot?

Post by Margo » November 19th, 2010, 4:36 pm

sierramcconnell wrote:Why am I imagining a guy sitting in a ring of book stacks, marking things down with a black Sharpie on a legal pad by lamplight?
Yeah, we all gotta do our time, though.
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Re: What is a Subplot?

Post by sierramcconnell » November 19th, 2010, 4:47 pm

Margo wrote:
sierramcconnell wrote:Why am I imagining a guy sitting in a ring of book stacks, marking things down with a black Sharpie on a legal pad by lamplight?
Yeah, we all gotta do our time, though.
I think it's a cute image. XD

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Re: What is a Subplot?

Post by polymath » November 19th, 2010, 4:59 pm

Subplot as a literary method evaded me for decades. Some people using the term didn't make sense, others did but I didn't understand how a plot could be subdivided. Once I grasped the ramifications of plot shape as a structural component, I had to process the aesthetics of plot. All the while investigating the novels I read for entertainment for structure, substructure, and aesthetics and their methods. I reconciled my appreciation of plot with others' differing ones first, then subplot.

To me plot is a shape, one shape for all, with an infinite number of aesthetic influences. How a shape could be subdivided and still be a whole didn't make sense. Fractal geometry holds an answer. The parts' shapes appear identical to the whole shape except for scale. Once I appreciated the signficance of complication for plot, I was on to a full and satisfying appreciation of plot and subplot.

At one time I had ten thousand novels and several thousand from other genres on my library shelves and countless thousands more I've borrowed and read. I moved and many of mine got away. I only keep the most memorable ones now, but it's still a couple thousand that haven't yet found their way into the public domain and free online access at one of the archives like Gutenberg Project. I have about a dozen novels at hand, the rest on the shelves in my bedroom, in my workshop, in my office, and in boxes in my closets. I haven't quite memorized any of them, but I can quickly thumb to a pertinent section or method in several hundred.
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Re: What is a Subplot?

Post by J. T. SHEA » November 19th, 2010, 7:17 pm

Subplot? Like THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, CRIMSON TIDE, and RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP? Oh, wait...

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Re: What is a Subplot?

Post by bcomet » November 19th, 2010, 7:52 pm

This is a great conversation, Polymath.

I love the responses.

Sometimes subplot seems to consist of several things.

But,other times, it is the kitchen sink. i.e., the movie, It's a Mad Mad Mad World.

Each of the contestants has their own "drama," but the ultimate plot is about winning the race.

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Re: What is a Subplot?

Post by Quill » November 20th, 2010, 10:47 am

I confess ignorance.

After thinking about this thread subject since its inception, I realize I have no idea how to define "subplot"

No, I'm not ready to look it up somewhere. Probably somewhere would define it differently from somewhere else anyway.

I'm trying to think of a definition clear enough to distinguish it from any other plot feature, say, like part of the main plot. I mean, sometimes a subplot seems to parallel the main plot in theme, or symbolically, but maybe it doesn't. Sometimes they feature the main character, in a situation only tangential to the main plot, and sometimes they don't.

Is there anything true of ALL subplots?

An editor asked me once if my WIP included at least one subplot. I said yes, because there's a secondary character and storyline, but it ties in so closely to the main plot that I wasn't sure.

So I ask again, is there anything true of ALL subplots? To help define them. In other words, what must a subplot be, in relation to the main plot, to be considered definitely a sub-plot?

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Re: What is a Subplot?

Post by androidblues » November 20th, 2010, 10:57 am

Think of the subplot like this.

You have a goal in life right? Whether it be to become rich, or get famous, or whatever. That is your main goal. How you approach that is your main plot. Lets say you meet a that special someone while you're working to become rich. Pursuing them becomes a sub-plot in your great story. Your main goal connects to your main plot while any other sub goals you have, obtaining a chocolate bar, getting your Great Aunt Patties inheritance, connect to your sub-plot. How you achieve a goal is the journey or plot.The story as some would say.

Television is the master of sub-plots. I bet all of you have watched King of the Hill or The Simpsons once. In TV, more than not the sub plot connects back with the main plot. In the Office, the main character would be Michael, but Tim is supporting character with his own sub plot. Michael's goal would be to get a promotion, or become well respected and get a girlfriend -- which he accomplishes in the finale. The finale primarily focuses on Michael. The sub-plot is the romance between Tim and Dawn. Romances are frequently used for sub plots. Sometimes they tie into the main plot, other times they don't.In King of the Hill there is always one main plot and one sub-plot. They always focus on different characters.

In Star Wars, the main plot is fighting the Sith, the sub plot is Anakin's longing to be with Padme. Eventually that sub-plot turns into the major plot of the RoTS. Many times a sub-plot that seemed unimportant is suddenly thrust into full light. This is the case with many animated shows. Take the Justice League. The romance between Green Lantern and Hawkgirl -- I'm a geek I know -- was a sub-plot for almost three seasons. But then in the finale that was suddenly very important -- I won't spoil it. Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash or Batman would be the main focus you would think, right? But instead they focused on the two most under-appreciated in the Justice League. That's the beauty of a sub-plot.

Same thing happened in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Zuko's sub-plot was suddenly the main plot -- and was much more interesting than Aang's anyway. This also happened in the Teen Titans.

In conclusion, sub-plots are like mini-games, the mini-quest, the small things in life, that can tie into the main plot. What if your main plot is to get to work? But you're hungry. Getting a snack before you get to work is your sub-plot. Now what if the snack line is full? You could be late to work! That is how a sub-plot can interfere with a main plot.

Final example, getting published is pretty much all of our main goals at this point. But getting an agent, and god forbid finishing that novel, paying attention to our lives, and taking a break every now and then are sub plots.
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Re: What is a Subplot?

Post by Steppe » November 20th, 2010, 11:01 am

I tossed in a subplot today that was screaming to be included.
I was on first hard core revision to prepare for the frenzy of the climatic scenes.
Great question.

I had a character that located a piece of coveted technology (secret book) with no idea of its worth.
Now having decided the outcomes of the upcoming battles(in my outline of the books finish) and stripping away the first layer of illusions (in my mind only as narrator) I added the possibility that the book that was found contains accurate identification of all the struggling individuals moving to the apex point.
This sub plot means an individual may be in possession of the very information the MC was willing to risk death or torture and became injured to conceal.
Where and when he figures out the exact value of the information and blabs it to others depends on where I need him as a provocateur to keep the action moving.

Technically I agree on the four is plenty of sub plot limit.

I view subplots as massive cornerstones similar to four huge granite blocks symmetrically sitting apart from each other in a barren field
Then a pyramid appears and you place it on top of the space provide by the four huge blocks.
The huge blocks are sub plots below the main pyramid plot.
The four corners of the pyramid eat up exactly one fourth of the cornerstones as it lands on its four block base.

Then its like imagining a child's playground toy.
Is there a hatch in any of the blocks that leads into the pyramids cellar corner.
What if the MC climbs up a rope ladder under the pyramids open floor hatch only to find he can't make it to the top of the pyramid
and has to back track out and try each blocks contents and hopefully find a side route to the top of the pyramid. Meanwhile some of the
SC supporting cast are already playing long shots hoping to reach the top of the pyramid by the less traveled routes.
Eventually the sub plots falter or get folded into the main plot depending on whether the alternate routes took the narrative higher up the pyramid
to the story close point than original straightaway open hatch in the pyramids exposed floorspace.

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Re: What is a Subplot?

Post by polymath » November 20th, 2010, 2:00 pm

Subplots to me converge and diverge and converge as the main action indicates. Be it a divergence or convergence of complication as pertains to plot, character, setting, event, or idea, in some way a subplot involves a SPICE ensemble. Character ensembles are ideal for character subplots. Single protagonists are ideal for complication, setting, and event subplots. Idea oriented subplots clash ideals. Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears pits cultural value ideals against one another.

Lord of the Rings band of questers diverge as they become separated from Frodo and Sam's main quest. Gandalf, Merry and Pippin, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas are separated from Frodo and diverge on their own subplots parallel to the larger quest. Golem's subplot converges on the main plot. Five distinctive subplots, each with their own complications, purposes, motivations, and stakes relevant to the larger plot.

Voldemort's revival is a subplot of the Potter saga diverging before the saga opens and converging touches throughout the saga until Potter and Voldemort converge in a final clash.

Jonathan Franzen's Freedom diverges into four supporting central characters' subplots converging with and diverging from Patty Berglund's central plot throughout.

Homer's Odyssey has Odysseus' main plot, Penelope, Poseidon, Athena, and Telamachus subplots.

androidblues noted how television situation comedies and dramas with ensemble casts use subplots to develop rich, well-rounded supporting characters. Dysfunctional families are a mainstay of television comedies, perhaps beginning with Jackie Gleason's The Honeymooners and continuing forward, Leave it to Beaver, My Three Sons, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, All in the Family, The Jeffersons, The Simpsons, Family Guy, American Dad!, The Cleveland Show, and Raising Hope to name a few. Each having five central characters, typically the father figure as the main character, although Raising Hope makes a significant departure from the central father figure role. Television dramas aren't as nuclear family fixated, but follow a hierarchy similar to patriarchal family life.

Converging and diverging storylines for me is what subplots do. So long as there's a relevant complication, character, setting, event, or idea or relevant permutations and combinations of SPICE, unity is maintained. After all, supporting characters don't have to be flat stock characters anymore. They have their own complications, purposes, motivations, and stakes to contend with and that antagonistically, for good or ill, influence a main character.
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Re: What is a Subplot?

Post by Fenris » November 20th, 2010, 2:31 pm

Might I leap back in and suggest that some subplots can be (loosely) defined as recurring themes? They are slightly more than that, of course (hence the title subplots), but I wonder if the line is thin and foggy. For example, perhaps the recurring theme is something that keeps recurring because it helps us understand the main plot more, something that we can take as an example, a smaller blueprint to give us a better idea of what the larger plot might end up looking like. For example, to use polymath's Harry Potter example, every book was laid out as such: Brief introduction to the characters (paraphrased after the first book, but always there, maybe for those who picked up a book in the middle of the series), Harry arrives at Hogwarts (spoiler alert: with the exception of the seventh), the plot unfolds, and at the end Harry confronts some form of Voldemort/his followers. In a way, every single book was a blueprint of the larger series.

And then there are, of course, the subplots that seem to have nothing to do with the main plot. For example, TVTropes on this thread.
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Re: What is a Subplot?

Post by polymath » November 20th, 2010, 9:38 pm

Thematic unity is important in my estimation to subplot. A subplot that has a theme related to a main plot's theme connects them together more than any other quality. Themes related to conflict in the literary sense, where diametric in opposition stakes relate to a central theme, i.e., life and death, good and evil, riches and rags, acceptance and rejection, or not necessarily related closely to a central conflict, like humanity contending with nature, humanity contending with supernatural phenomena, underdogs contending with authority, people contending with themselves, etc.

The Voldemort subplot fits the larger plot as well as each installment's plot. Perhaps the Voldemort subplot isn't solely a subplot. Maybe it's also an overplot arcing over the Potter plot of coming of age inherent to young adult literature, though the first two installments more closely fit middle grade literature. Seven novels spanning seven years, equivalent to ages eleven through eighteen and grades six through twelve.

Rowling has commented that maybe the Potter saga isn't over. I guess she could continue into the college years with a new villain and/or nemisis. Say, a muggle authority bent on revealing the magic society to muggle society. A charismatic character from any of the estates would do: government, military, church, press, academia, or the public at large. I'd like to see a professor of evangelism posed as the villain or nemisis seeking to expose the magic society. Anyway. Potter's college years might be spent at a muggle university. Undergraduate and graduate would take up six or so years. He might also be forced by circumstances beyond his control to work as a clerical drudge at the Ministry of Magic while he attends college. There's no reason Granger and Weasley couldn't accompany him to both. All early adult complications that could make a saga almost, if not more, suspenseful than Potter's grade school years.
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Re: What is a Subplot?

Post by GeeGee55 » November 22nd, 2010, 2:52 pm

This is an interesting discussion. I am not schooled at all in what a subplot is, but having thought about it after reading all the comments I think an example can be found in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (which I think is his best work). At one point in the story some of the secondary characters have a discussion around the shooting of a dog which has grown old, each of them have their own motives for wanting the dog put down or not. I'm speaking from memory here, so it may not be quite accurate, but, as I recall the MC is more an observer and doesn't partake in the action in this event. Eventually, one of the secondary characters takes the dog away and the others left in the room hear the gunshot. It's something that could actually occur given the time, the setting, the characters, but it's not the main story. It's function in the story is to add to the theme of euthanasia. At the end of the story, when the MC shoots his friend to spare him what is to come, it's a secondary character who remarks, "sometimes a guy's just gotta," but it was the MC who took the dramatic action.

So the subplot supports the main plot in whatever way the writer imagines it can, but is separate from the main action.

Thanks for starting this, Polymath. And thanks to all who commented.

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Re: What is a Subplot?

Post by polymath » November 22nd, 2010, 4:03 pm

Thanks, GeeGee55 and others who have commented. Discussing subplot has been an enriching experience.

In some way or another motivations and stakes and outcomes, plot as pertains to causation, tension, and antagonism, and setting, character, event, and idea separate from a main plot have been discussed.

In one area of tension, specifically suspense is one of a subplot's usefulnesses. Say, a main character is incited to make a transoceanic voyage, unless the voyage is the main action, subplots can fill in the time gap without having to report the voyage at all. Say a protagonist-reader surrogate is in route from London to New York to see about a long lost love interest in trouble, the voyage doesn't have much to do with the main plot and can be skipped over in a jump transition.

However, in order to preserve story time and narrative time and report on events the protagonist doesn't and can't know about, reportng a chapter or so about the love interest's situation bridges the time gap, say as the love interest prepares for the arrival of the protagonist while also reporting the love interest's complication, dilemma, and so on, that the protagonist comes to help out with. Or perhaps more deliciously, the love interest has posed a ruse to draw the protagonist into the love interest's clutches, a dramatic irony readers are in on along with the love interest but not the protagonist. And perhaps even more deliciously dramatic irony if the protagonist has secrets kept from the love interest as well. Delightful twists and turns galore, I'm sure.
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