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As I ever-so-briefly touched on the other day in a post on outlining, subplots use the same main structure as your main plot. That means each subplot needs an inciting event, a pivot point 1, a midpoint, a pivot point 2, a climax, and a resolution.
What makes them “sub” and not main?
Page time is the simple answer.
Looking for a more complicated answer?
A subplot is a secondary plot, usually focusing on a different theme than the main plot, and as such neither requires nor receives as much page time as the main plot.
Subplots often focus on a different theme, perhaps love, relationships, money, family, a secret, career, etc. (the subjects are endless). The most typical subplot is one of love. Consider your favorite non-romance novel. Is there a romantic storyline in it? It’s probably a subplot.
A subplot also usually (although not always) involves a minor character’s desires instead of the main character’s desires.
The best subplots advance the main plot.
Let’s take one of the most well recognized novels in history: Pride & Prejudice. This is a romance novel, arguably one of the best. Thus it comes as no surprise that the main plot is a romantic plot, between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy.
However, there are several secondary plots, all of which are also romantic plots. (I know, I said above that the subplots usually focused on a different theme. Key word: usually.) These subplots involve the romances between Jane and Mr. Bingley; Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins; and Lydia and Mr. Wickham.
Now Ms. Austen could have written these as throwaway plots, rabbit trails, especially Mr. Bingley and Jane, as Mr. Bingley had no romantic interest in Lizzy–ever. However, she was a wise enough author not to do that. Instead, she used Mr. Bingley’s attraction to Jane and Mr. Bingley’s friendship with Mr. Darcy in order to advance the main plot: romance between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth.
Without getting into the entire story, which most of you are familiar with (if not, check out the summary at SparkNotes), let’s discuss how the subplots advance the main plot.
- Mr. Bingley & Jane: From the beginning, these two seem made for each other. Despite everyone else thinking so, Darcy and Bingley’s sisters reject the match because of Jane’s family and her standing. Therefore, they and Darcy contrive to remove Bingley from Jane’s side and to convince him that she is unsuitable for him. Later, Lizzy is outraged to discover this, and it further sets her against Darcy, who “has no wish to deny it.”
- Charlotte & Mr. Collins: Originally, Mr. Collins, who happens to be Mr. Bennet’s cousin and legal heir because he has no son, has fixed his sights on Lizzy. Of course, this has been promoted by Mrs. Bennet, who foolishly decides that the ridiculous man would be suitable for her smartest daughter. However, Lizzy puts the cabash on that union in no uncertain terms, asserting herself in a clear way that shows Austen’s adept hand at using this subplot to develop her main character’s personality and display her character. But wait!–that’s not all it does. What this subplot also does is develop Austen’s almost satirical discussion on the truth of marriages in that day. When Charlotte accepts Mr. Collin’s rebound proposal, going into with eyes wide open and knowing that she will never love him, but that he will be able to provide for her and will be a good match, she provides a demonstration of how many marriages were logical choices and not love matches. Was Charlotte unhappy with this marriage? No. She was grateful for the opportunities it provided, and clearly makes the best of it, as our later interactions with her shows.
- Lydia Bennet & Mr. Wickham: This is the subplot which advances the main plot the most. For when Lydia elopes with Wickham, it is Mr. Darcy who feels obligated to save the day and track them down, then force Wickham to marry the woman whose honor he has stolen. It is this subplot which demonstrates to the reader and Lizzy most clearly the character of Mr. Darcy. When Lizzy discovers what he’s done to promote the recovery of her and her family’s honor, she realizes she’s hopelessly in love with him, and that he deserves it. He is not the man she thought he was, he is better.
Who knew P&P had so many subplots?
So when do you know if you need a subplot?
No one needs a subplot. However, there are times where a subplot would strengthen the plot of your novel.
Usually when you are having a difficult time getting to “novel” length in your writing, like when you’ve written 20K words and you feel like you’re already at the climax of your story, consider adding a subplot to see what that would change.
How do you tell if a subplot would make your story better?
Experiment. Brainstorm. There’s nothing wrong with having to remove a subplot later, even though it can be difficult.
Consider how removing the three subplots from P&P would change the story. First of all, you’d have no elopement, no way for Darcy to prove his character other than Lizzy’s unexpected visits to Pemberly and Rosling Park. You’d have only the conflict between Lizzy and Darcy to rely on, no Mr. Collins for comic relief, etc. Removing those three (or even one) of those subplots would drastically change the novel we know and love.
So take a chance and experiment. There is no danger in trying!