Being a Better Writer: Tying Subplots and Plot Together

Hello readers! Welcome back to Being a Better Writer once more, where we’re continuing in a similar vein to last week. If you recall, last week’s topic was on how to lengthen a story out without padding it, and one of the options that came up with regards to that topic was the concept of subplots. So why not keep a theme going and talk a little more about subplots this week?

Well, not about subplots in general, mind (we’ve covered that before) but about a specific aspect of subplots I’ve been questioned about before with young writers: How to tie them into a primary plot line. Or if that even needs to happen at all? Because after all, can’t you just have a B story with no connection?

Well yes. And no. As with most things in writing, the answer isn’t quite so simple (hence we have these posts). So let’s dive in and talk about subplots and how we tie them into everything else in our work.

So then, we’ve planned out our story, and got out main plot all figured out. But we’re working on including a subplot to lengthen things out a bit and add some new angles. But should the subplot tie into the main plot?

Well, at the risk of making this post a lot shorter, I’ll give the simple answer first: yes.

Thankfully for today’s post being above a few hundred words, the full answer isn’t quite so simple. If one were to simply walk away with the answer of “yes” in their head and then sit down to make a subplot, they might realize that there’s a lot of range in how that subplot can tie into the main plot.

For example, say you’re writing an action-adventure story with peril and fist-fights. There’s obviously room for a subplot in there, from the “convenient romantic subplot” to drama between a protagonist and other characters to … Well, just about anything.

But there’s a catch to “just about anything.” It really is “just about anything.” Which can include subplots entirely unrelated to the main plot. And yes, stories like this do exist. But generally, they’re not very fulfilling.

Maybe you can envision a book or a show that’s done this to you before. They have what’s called a B-plot—basically, a subplot to the main A-plot, usually to pad out television episodes to their predetermined length. Both the A-plot and the B-plot wind around one another, but they never interact. Sometimes they don’t even influence one another. Sands, while often there will be a token effort at the end to make them interact in some manner (usually in either a comedy pile-up or the characters recounting the A and B plots to one another to explain what they “learned”) but sometimes they creators can’t be bothered to do that. You just have a primary plot and a subplot, neither one touching the other.

Not a great approach, really. Imagine reading that in a book. Sure, you’ve got a subplot in there, but by the end, with no influence at all, one could have just as well read the book without the subplot and the subplot as a short story.

Sands, there’s one TV show out there that actually does this by design, an animated comedy that keeps its A, B, and C plots all the same relative length, and not connected to one another on purpose so that they can be interchangeably mixed up with one another. So one showing may be plots A1, B1, C1, the next A3, B1, C2, and another A2, B3, C1.

Wild, right?

But while it works for being able to artificially pad out episodes for syndication, it does not make for a cohesive story. In fact, because of the oddball nature of its construction, sometimes the various plots can “accidentally” have the same characters in two different places doing two different plots with no acknowledgement of it in the slightest.

Which, you must admit, if you encountered it in a book would be strange. Especially if there were logical moments for a subplot and a plot to interconnect.

Basically, while it’s entirely possible to write a plot and subplot that don’t connect at all, this leads to a feeling of disconnection within the book itself. Again, a reader will reach the ending of such a work and wonder why the subplot was there at all if it wasn’t going to be connected in any way. They’ll feel that they’ve lost something important.

They’ll be right to think such too. There’s a term here that’s perfect to this situation: Cohesion. In writing, saying that something is cohesive means that it all fits together well, like the pieces of a puzzle coming together to form a grand image.

When something isn’t cohesive, however, the pieces don’t line up right, or the image isn’t quite so complete. A plot and subplot that don’t connect, for example, would produce a “puzzle image” that had a separate image inside it like a comic-book frame. Which would be odd, to say the least.

In other words, cohesion is something that helps pull an audience into the story and bring the world to life. When a world is cohesive and feels whole, an audience is much more at home in it. When it’s choppy, or disconnected, it’s harder to become invested as the rough edges will keep pulling them out.

All right then, so with all this said … How do we interconnect our plots and subplots. It’s important, yes, but how do we go about doing so to bring about that cohesion?

Well, thankfully it’s easier than it sounds, at least as I see it. In fact, I’d put it down to two things at the core. The first would be continuity, and the second would be actual interaction between the two plotlines.

Okay, let me explain what I mean when I say those two things. Let’s start with continuity. Basically, you want to do the opposite of that aforementioned show making things as disconnected as possible.

Think of it like the days of the week. If your main plot is days Sunday through Saturday, and the sub-plot is made up of parts of Tuesday and Thursday, how strange would it be for the character on Friday to act as though Tuesday and Thursday never happened. Or, during Tuesday or Thursday, acting as though the rest of the week didn’t exist?

This is what I mean about continuity. If your character is a novice gardener as a subplot, waging war against garden snails. Wouldn’t it make sense for them to occasionally have something remind of them of it later in the main plot, or for them to mention it in conversation during the main plot. And vice-versa, wouldn’t it make sense for them to be doing their thing in the subplot and not at all recalling the main plot, would it?

Sands, we can take it further: If they learn something in the subplot, that knowledge should be on display in the main plot. Skills, talents, friendships, rivalries … all should carry over from one to the other.

Which is a perfect lead-in to the second bit I mentioned above: Interaction. Continuity is one thing, but what about skills, talents, or even occurrences in one plot line impacting the other?

Take, for example, a very famous episode of The Simpsons titled 22 Short Films About Springfield.

If you’ve never seen it, I do recommend it. 22 Short Films is named quite accurately: It’s a collection of 22 subplots with the only main plot being a character (Bart) musing at the very beginning if anything interesting happened to the citizens of the town of Springfield that day. The story then bounces between 22 different shorts, each following a different person in the town as something happens to them that day, starting with Apu taking a five-minute break from his job.

Here’s the thing though: Despite being 22 different stories across the town, as the audience watches they see that many of these various plots intertwine. Elements from one lead to happenings in another, or explain why in another a character is where they are. All the various stories intertwine with one another, sometimes in a background shot, or in the noticeable foreground. But it makes the episode incredibly enjoyable, as despite being 22 separate shorts, they still work together as a cohesive whole, interacting with one another. The shorts even bookend by the end, as they began with Bart wondering about other people’s stories while squirting mustard off an overpass … and the next-to-last story has someone being hit with said mustard at the tail-end of their own story.

Now, my point isn’t that you should have 22 subplots, but rather than when working on a subplot (or subplots) for their story, young authors should take care to make sure that it does, it some way, interact with the rest of the story.

In a way, this is merely expanding on the idea of the continuity spoken about above, but taking it one step further. 22 Short Films About Springfield wasn’t just in continuity with itself, but all the various plots interacted and influenced one another. Likewise, when we add subplots to our work, letting them interact and play off of one another can be a great way to bring our world closer together and strengthen both stories.

For example, how many of you readers have seen a mystery plot (or a plot with an element of mystery) where something the protagonist’s love interest from the convenient romantic subplot says or does proves to be the clue they need to solve their riddle? A number of you, I’d wager, because that’s a very common, easy way to make two plots intertwine and affect one another (while still having the ever popular convenient romantic subplot).

Sands, I think I may have used a variation on that with one of the subplots in Dead Silver.

But I digress. The point is that your subplot should not only share continuity with the main ploy, but interact in some way, even small and simple.

Another way to look at it would be, I would suggest, to think about your own life over a period of time. Say a week. Think of the different things that happened to you in that week, and whether or not telling someone a complete account of any one of them would be complete without including at least some reference to the other things you did.

For most of us, that’d probably be pretty difficult. So it should be with subplots. We should intertwine them with our main plot, all of them having an effect on one another to some degree so that they’re all part of the main story.

Now, some of you may be thinking, all right, this makes sense, but how do I do that while keeping everything straight? And well, we’ll get to that. Next week. For now, that’s it for this week’s Being a Better Writer. So as always …

Good luck. Now get writing.

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