Key points: Subplots are secondary plots. They can flesh out other characters, make the world feel more real, keep the tension high, and introduce elements as foreshadowing for the main plot. They can also provide quick accomplishments for a sense of progress. Be wary of subplots being more interesting than the main plot. How many subplots? It depends on your genre and skills, but don't overload the reader. Subplots feel real when they advance character, the main plot, or reveal setting.
[Brandon] Let's dig into it. Dan, what is a subplot?
[Dan] A subplot is a secondary plot... another thread of story that runs along parallel to the main story. There could be lots of them. They might last the full length of the main story or they might come and go, depending on how big of a story you're telling. Sometimes they relate directly to the main theme and sometimes they don't. Just an extra little story in there to flesh out the main one.
[Brandon] That launches us into why. Howard? Why subplots? You are very good with subplots in Schlock Mercenary. Why do you use them?
[Howard] Because the main plot is usually only developing maybe two or three characters at the most. If there isn't something else happening, everybody else feels like a cardboard cutout. Everybody else has to have something interesting. Everybody else... everybody in the book feels like they are the hero of their own story. For that to be true, they have got to be doing something, even if they're just sweeping.
[Brandon] Reason number one, to flesh out other characters for the express purpose of making the world feel more real. I would add, another reason, depending on your genre, can simply be to keep the tension high. Sometimes you've got a large overarching plot where it doesn't feel really tense because you're taking little steps towards something huge.
[Dan] The scope of your main plot is usually so big that especially in the early scenes when that is still developing, you need something else in there to add that tension or add that emotion or whatever it is that the current phase of the main plot isn't doing.
[Howard] One other reason is the whole explain-something-small-in-great-detail and then give something big a wide miss. In the most recent Harry Potter movie, the subplots of confused horny teenagers was brilliantly executed, brilliantly acted. I believed that those 20-year-old kids were 15 and 16 year old teens. They had me completely convinced. That sells the rest of the story. Those subplots had me firmly embedded in a universe in which you can dip your head in a fishbowl and see somebody else's memories.
[Dan] That's a good point. Subplots can provide realism in that way. If you buy into a little subplot about a character who is sad, or depressed or angry or whatever he is, then all of a sudden you are connected to that story and you are connected to that book and that's going to make everything else feel more real.
[Brandon] Tom Clancy does that.
[Howard] Oh, Tom Clancy's subplots. I love the fact that every so often you would switch to a point of view of someone you have never had. That would ratchet up the tension because you realize this guy, he's in the path of a thing that might kill him. I may just be getting his story in order to find out what it's like to get hit by a falling tank or whatever's happening.
[Brandon] That happens all the time in Tom Clancy books. These tanks fall on everyone.
[Dan] Especially in Clear and Present Incredible Hulks. That was a great one. One of the craziest subplots that Clancy did that I thought was just brilliant... I can't remember the book, but I think the book actually started with a Japanese businessman who was admiring a tree.
[Howard] That was from The Sum of All Spidermen.
[Dan] He buys this tree. Then you go off and you get a whole chunk of book. Then it comes back to this guy. He's shipping the tree across land. Then you go back somewhere else. All through the book, there's this dude with this tree and you don't know why. It eventually paid off so brilliantly when it finally connected to the main story.
[Howard] The tree fell off a boat and hit a submarine.
[Howard] It was a big tree.
[Brandon] It better be a big tree. I suppose a little tree could hit a submarine. It depends on what kind of a [inaudible]
[Dan] It just wouldn't matter.
[Brandon] Another reason for subplots I would say is your learning curve. With a subplot you can introduce an element of the story or world before it becomes important to the main plot which allows you to play with it a little bit, show what it is so that later on when it becomes vitally important to the main characters as part of the main plot, you've foreshadowed it. It helps with your learning curve.
[Howard] I have the ability to do that... I'm not completely convinced I'm going to do that, but I have the ability to do that with the current Schlock Mercenary storyline in that we have been exploring through subplots some of Schlock's sensory abilities. They may just come in handy. Then again I might screw that up. I don't know.
[Brandon] I'll reiterate also the keep-the-tension-high thing because I think we got distracted from it. Your characters are making this long march to this distant point and that's very important. Them running out of food for a couple of days and having to go hunting or this sort of thing can give us an immediate threat that can be overcome quickly which gives us a sense of progression because we're accomplishing things and it makes our characters protag as Howard puts it.
[Howard] I think Dan Willis described the three act format, and he was quoting somebody else, as Act One, chase the characters up a tree, Act II, throw rocks at them, Act Three, chop down the tree.
[Dan] That was Brandon Mull, actually.
[Howard] Was it Brandon Mull who described that? OK, fantastic. Subplot is Act II, while the characters are having rocks thrown at them up in the tree, one of the characters pulls out a saw and starts cutting branches off the tree. Why? I don't know.
[Brandon] Or two of the characters start to have a romance while the rocks are hitting them...
[Dan] Or one of the rocks hits a beehive.
[Brandon] That's a great one. Subplots. I think we've beaten to death what a subplot is specifically and why you want to use them.
[Howard] So do's and don'ts?
[Brandon] Do's and don'ts of subplots. Howard?
[Howard] Don't make the subplot more interesting than the main plot.
[Brandon] This is a big danger.
[Howard] It's really dangerous. I think the most recent Harry Potter film did that. I watched Harry Potter, I came out, and I thought wow, I was totally sold. The main plot in the book of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince was who is the Half Blood Prince and how does this tie into the horcruxes and all this other stuff. In the film, all I really got was confused horny teenagers and oh, cool wizard fireballs at the end.
[Dan] I read that in countless reviews that the revelation of the Half Blood Prince really felt tacked on because they let the subplots overwhelm their main plot.
[Brandon] All right. Why not? Why is this a bad thing?
[Dan] It's a bad thing... first of all, it's a difficult thing to do. Because as we talked about for a certain amount of time you often want a subplot to be more interesting because that's why you put it there in the first place.
[Brandon] It's a difficult thing NOT to do?
[Dan] Yeah, it's difficult not to let that subplot take over because part of the reason it's there is because it's supposed to be cool. Why is it bad to let it take over? For the same reason that you don't want a minor character to be more interesting than your main character. Because that's what they need to invest in, that's what the reader needs to invest emotionally in order to make it all the way through your story. They need to be completely fired up about your main plot, they need to be loving or hating your main character. If all these other things keep distracting them, then it's going to be an anti-climax when they get to the end.
[Howard] I have had people complain that there are too many interesting characters in my comic. That is a legitimate complaint. I have made them interesting because I am always looking for a way to tell a punch line, and sometimes I have to shift to another point of view in order to tell that joke.
[Brandon] This isn't really fair for you because your motive with your comic is different than a lot of motives for fiction is. For you, the joke trumps pretty much everything else.
[Howard] The joke trumps all, and also... this is going to sound horrible because I use this word about things that I hate... I have to keep the franchise alive. The characters all need to be interesting so that if I threatened somebody, you care. If there's somebody I decide to focus on in an upcoming storyline, you care.
[Brandon] But the reason... getting back to my original question, I like what Dan said. Let me break it apart. He said number one I think he was talking about your ending will feel flat. That will partially come because your reader will get bored of a subplot pretty quickly because most subplots are not intended to be the overarching plot.
[Howard] A subplot doesn't resolve with triumph. A subplot results with a measure of satisfaction or disappointment.
[Brandon] The characters are hunting for food in our example before. If you stretch that into the main plot or let it overshadow the main plot, they are always hunting for this food. It's going to be boring because that's not a book dominating...
[Dan] It could be, but then you have to focus on it very specifically and it would be a very different book.
[Howard] The place where that is likely to happen is... let's say the author is somebody who has personal experience hunting, but is writing space opera. Suddenly the characters find themselves out of food and there is a subplot about hunting. He revels in hunting for three chapters. A good editor is going to say weedkill this darling. That gets pruned.
[Brandon] Or if you're reveling in hunting and you're so good at it that it's dominating... it's the same sort of thing that I think we said with side characters. Why not tell that story? Why not build a proper plot for that story? Let it be it's own book. Give it its own three act, try-fail cycles, all of this sort of stuff that makes a really great plot line. Write a book about it.
[Howard] That's really good advice. If you're sitting down and writing for the first time and you are worried that a subplot is taking over the story, write it as interesting as you want to write it. When you get to the end of the book, hand it to somebody else and find out what they thought.
[Brandon] Yeah. If it's distracting, then you can cut it. If it's fascinating and they want more and they are annoyed that all this other stuff is going on, you could make that either the focus of a new book or you could revise the book so it becomes the focus. But let's... we've done just a little bit do's and don'ts. Howard, do you have any do's and don'ts?
[Howard] On subplots?
[Howard] The one that people always come back to is how many is too many. I don't have a firm number but... I say I don't have a firm number and I'm going to give you a firm number. 3 to 5. I got that number from, of all places, PowerPoint presentations. When you're creating a PowerPoint presentation, never put more than 3 to 5 bullet points on a slide, because the human brain can't track more than five. Not without sitting down and taking notes.
[Brandon] So you're saying 3 to 5 at the same time?
[Howard] 3 to 5... if you've got 3 to 5 running at the same time for a full-length novel, the reader is going to be able to keep track of it. If you've got six or seven, the odds are good that people are going to say, "Oh, wait, was this character?" That may be too many.
[Brandon] I think it depends on the type of book you're writing, your own skill as a writer, and... George R.R. Martin has dozens of subplots going on in his books. He is a writer beyond the norm, you might say. He's a fantastic writer.
[Howard] I'm reading the Wheel of Time right now, and I'm only up to book 5... Fires of Heaven is four or five?
[Brandon] Fires of Heaven is five.
[Howard] So I'm only up to five. Counting the number of subplots, I'm pretty sure that I am only focusing on 3 to 5 subplots. I've got Rand, I've got Seanchan, I've got Nynaeve, I've got Elayne, and every so often we tune in on the villains. Wheel of Time is huge, I know there's far more subplots than that going on, but for that book, Jordan is staying focused on those four.
[Brandon] I don't know. I'm going to have to argue with you.
[Howard] You know Wheel of Time better than I do.
[Brandon] I put 22 subplots into The Gathering Storm.
[Howard] You're wrapping up...
[Brandon] I'm wrapping up. But what I'm saying is, it depends on the book you're trying to do and what you're trying to accomplish. The Wheel of Time... one of the things people like about it is... for re-readability, when you read through, you can then pay attention to some of these smaller subplots and latch onto them. Also, the sheer weight of it... large numbers of subplots are what make it feel epic. But I think your advice of keeping them smaller particularly for newer writers is great advice. One of the things I pointed out before, if you look at the Wheel of Time, it starts with two or three. Then it starts to add. Then it adds more and it adds more and it adds more, until what's really going on is that you have 3 to 5 main plots and a dozen subplots.
[Dan] One of the reasons that that is possible in Wheel of Time is because it has so many characters. When you are looking at how many subplots you want to include, how many characters you have and especially how many viewpoint characters I think will give you a good idea of how many to include. If you've only got one guy, and the entire book is from his point of view, you probably don't need that many because it would just overwhelm that character.
[Howard] In defense of my position, as a reader of the Wheel of Time, I only tracked three or four things. I'm sure there's more going on, but I can only remember three or four. As a first-time writer, I would recommend staying trackable.
[Dan] Certainly for first time or early writers... I don't even use more than three or four subplots in a book because it's very difficult to give them all the attention that they deserve. As you mature and as you become a better writer, you'll be able to do that more effectively.
[Howard] Last minute question. Plot twists... our whole podcast on plot twists... do plot twists apply to subplots?
[Brandon] Yes. Because a lot of times your subplot becoming part of the main plot is a great way to have a plot twist.
[Dan] Like the tree hitting the submarine.
[Howard] The tree hitting the submarine was a plot twist? Was a big reveal.
[Dan] That's a plot twist that brought two plots together and worked really well.
[Brandon] I do think we need to ask one more question though.
[Dan] Lay it on us.
[Brandon] How do we make our subplots feel real and three-dimensional instead of it being just filler?
[Howard] I would say... that with the plu...bludablup! I would stammer and take extra time to say that... focus on little things that you know a lot about. I focused... some of my subplots are office humor. I just did Schlock in the office sitting behind a desk not getting anything done. Boy, do I ever have experience with that. I milked it for a couple of jokes, it's fun, it feels real, it feels very three dimensional. We can then move on to something else and people feel like that was very grounded.
[Dan] You can see especially in TV shows where they tend to fall into a formula that... you can tell when the subplot is not pulling its weight. When it doesn't feel real. The Simpsons is the first one that lept to my mind, because there's always a main plot and then there is always one subplot. Within the first five minutes, you know what the main plot's going to be and what the subplot's going to be. It doesn't always work. A lot of the time, it just feels like this is not working.
[Howard] CSI -- the first three seasons of CSI did A story, B story. The first couple of seasons of Chuck did the same thing, an A story and a B story. With Chuck especially, the B story was something wacky is happening at the store, but it seemed very grounded in reality. The A story is crazy spy stuff about a guy with a computer in his brain, but the B story...
[Brandon] I was always annoyed by the B story in Chuck.
[Dan] I always was as well.
[Brandon] I think... the answer that I would give would be try to make your subplots either advance character, advance the main plot somehow by the end of them, or reveal something about setting.
[Howard] Those are good rules. Those are better rules than what I came up with.
[Dan] Yeah. You can say something useful, Brandon. Gee.
[Brandon] We have gone way over time. Our writing prompt...
[Dan] Here's our writing prompt. By odd happenstance, Brandon and I are wearing the same T-shirt today. Well, two different instances of a similar T-shirt.
[Howard -- choked laughter] Thank you.
[Dan] It is from an explosives company. We all know why we are both wearing the same T-shirt, but your prompt is to write a story about why we are wearing an explosives and blasting T-shirt.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.