The Key to a Great Story – Using Sub-Plots

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In my post on ‘The Mash-Up’ I talked about how you can add depth to your story by going beyond having one of the basic plots to combining two or more of the basic plots together in a mash-up.

One of the other ways in which a story can have more depth by having more than one plot is to use a sub-plot. These are plots within the main story, that add extra dimensions to the story being told. They run beneath the current of the main plot and how I usually find them is as part of the story of a minor character.

From the perspective of the minor character, they are the main character, and the plot they are living through is the main plot. That is how well a sub-plot should be written. It needs to be as good as the main plot; there to give balance to the story, to develop the characters around the protagonist, (or even be a plotting scheme of one of the antagonist’s companions) and the very best sub-plots at some point interact directly with the main plot of the story and have on effect on the outcome.

fangorn forest

‘It was more than mere chance that brought Merry and Pippin to Fangorn. A great power has been sleeping here for many long years. The coming of Merry and Pippin will be like the falling of small stones that starts an avalanche in the mountains.’

When Gandalf the White speaks these words in the Two Towers film, he is doing one of two things; he is ending the task that Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli had started at the end of the Fellowship of the Ring when they set out to save the two hobbits, and he is setting up Merry’s and Pippin’s own plotline.

In the great scheme of things, Merry and Pippin have a sub-plot in the Two Towers, that runs under the current of one of the two main plots. Their actions to encourage Treebeard and the Ents to march to war, which is of great benefit to the outcome of the War in Rohan, and in the longer term to the outcome for Gondor as well. The fall of Saruman is the beginning of the fall of Sauron.

‘Avalanche in the Mountains indeed’

The inclusion of this sub-plot, especially in a story with so many prominent characters, shows the amount of depth that is possible in a story, and how different characters can had an effect even if they aren’t part of the main tale.

I do have a rule with sub-plots though, they have to be relevant. Sub-plots that have no connection to the main plot, simply draws the audience away from the main plot WITHOUT purpose. When they have impact, the reader will think ahead about how this is going to change and/or benefit the direction of the main story. When they don’t the sub-plot screams out to be cut from the story entirely. It becomes padding.

There is an exception; when the sub-plot is part of a story arc, which is the subject of my next post.

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