A Writer Writes: Subplots and subtexts are not the same thing

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I was reading a discussion between several fans of a book that I have read, and was finding myself very confused. They kept talking about a subplot that I didn’t remember, and the conversation went in a weird direction where several people in the discussion were arguing about what the subplot actually was. And I finally realized that none of the people in the discussion knew what the word “subplot” means. They seemed to have confused “subplot” with “subtext” and were actually arguing about the underlying metaphors that they thought the author was portraying.

So first, let’s get some definitions.

subplot – a part of the story of a book or play that develops separately from the main story; a secondary strand of the plot that is a supporting side story for any story or the main plot; a subordinate part of a story distinguished from the main plot by taking up less of the action, having fewer significant events occur, with less impact on the “world” of the work, and occurring to less important characters.

Subtext, on the other hand, is an underlying, implied theme in a creative work. It is never announced explicitly by the characters or author, but is implicit or becomes something understood by the observer of the work as the production unfolds.

So a subplot consists of explicit actions that occur in the story: the characters of Merry and Pippin getting separated from the rest of the Fellowship of the Ring and having separate adventures before eventually rejoining the other characters is a subplot. The events actually happen on screen/page. On the other hand, postulating that the entire story is ultimately a commentary about death and obsession, those are discussions of subtext. If you are talking about the meaning of the story, you’re talking about subtext.

If you’re still not sure what a subplot is, it might be helpful to think about a typical television show. The primary plot (often called the A plot) of an episode of a workplace comedy might be about the annual staff review. The subplot (usually called the B plot) might be exploring a relationship between two of the characters. Another subplot (usually called the C plot) might be that one of the characters has started shaving at his desk and it is really annoying two other characters. Quite often in television shows the C plot is a running gag that resurfaces again and again. In my example, the character who shaves at his desk in that episode may have a lot of weird annoying habits, for instance.

Subplots serve various purposes in a story:

  • Add depth to your characters
  • Foreshadow things in later stories when you’re doing a series
  • Provides a sense of reality by showing other things happening in parallel to the main plot
  • Control the rising and falling sense of urgency as the main plot progresses
  • Reinforce the theme or show contrasts to the theme

Please note that I didn’t say anything about increasing the word count of your story. A lot of people think that’s the purpose of subplots in a novel, and I realize that I’ve perpetuated that misapprehension myself when I’ve said that “subplots help fill out a novel.” But what I was actually referring to was that subplots buttress your plot by doing each of the things listed above. Specifically:

Add depth to your characters. The main plot might be about preventing a supernatural disaster that could kill millions, while the subplot about one character not wanting to be betrothed to the person his parents have chosen gives insight into that character’s life and priorities. This gives the reader a stronger sense of the character and more ways to care about how the main plot affects him.

Foreshadow things in later stories. If you already know you want to write sequels to this tale, whether it is a short story, novella, or a novel, a subplot in this story can lead to the primary plot of the next.

Provides a sense of reality. Real life is messy. People have multiple things going on in their lives at the same time. Showing some of the other things happening at the same time as the main plot adds depth and breadth to your fictional world, solidifying your setting. The subplots still need to tie into or support the main plot, which can take many forms. The subplot may explain why a crucial supporting character is unavailable at a crisis point, for instance.

Control the rising and falling sense of urgency. This is one of the most common reasons subplots are employed in TV shows, movies, and the like: it gives the director something to cut to when they want to leave the main plot of a minor cliffhanger or to give the viewer a breather from a particularly intense scene. The same thing happens in prose stories. You can have a scene that shows your main character(s) attempting to sneak into the dark overlord’s stronghold, for instance, and bring them right up to the point where they are surprised by a guard. Then you end the scene on the cliffhanger, and jump to another location where two of the supporting characters who have become lost in the woods then follow them until a moment where they meet a stranger. Then you leave that scene and jump to another location where one of the minions of the dark lord is preparing an ambush of yet another group of supporting characters, and so forth. If first two scene were particularly intense, instead of having the minion setting up an ambush, you might show them failing to accomplish something in a humorous way, to provide a bit of comic relief.

Reinforce or contrast the theme. Suppose the theme of your story is how people react to the possibility of death. You might have one subplot involve a set of supporting characters dealing with another type of loss—perhaps their business is failing or their marriage is on the rocks. You can then have this subplot progress along with the main plot. It might not be resolved until the end when the main plot is resolved. Or you might decide to have it resolve at about the same time that the main plot takes a particularly emotional turn. And/or you may have a subplot that, instead of dealing with the loss or ending of something, is about the beginning of something in the life of another supporting character.

Please note that a single sub-plot can do several or all of these things for your story. The subplot about the supporting characters’ failing business will surely give depth to those particular characters as the reader sees how they react to the fear of the loss to begin with, and how they deal with each stage. Such a subplot also shows that there is more to the life of the characters than just the events of your main plot, providing a sense of reality.

I began this post by talking about people who had confused a subplot with subtext. While a subplot is a different thing than subtext, a subplot can contain subtext. Just as the main plot can have subtext. To sum up: the plot is the explicit primary problem that the protagonist struggles with from the beginning of the story all the way until the end. A subplot is a smaller or less important problem that one or more characters struggle with explicitly for some portion of the story, but not necessarily the entire tale. Subtext is an implicit (or inferred) theme or meaning which the reader understands without the author ever explicitly mentioning it.

Another important different is that plots and subplots are always things that author put in the story intentionally. Subtext can exist completely divorced from the author’s intent. But that’s a topic for another day.

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. I publish an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live in Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

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