Subplot Purpose and Requirements


The golden Rule of Subplot: Even when the protagonist isn’t in the scene, everything that happens must clearly affect him at some point, in some way!

It has a life of its own, but gets its meaning and resonance based on how it affects the main plot. Each sub-plot must have it’s own story question to resolve.

The other Rules of Subplot:

1 It must (supply information to) affect the protagonist’s main plot.
2 The subplot character is usually not the ally, the subplot character and the ally have two separate functions.
3 It is a fully realised plot on its own with its own structure.
4 It makes the protagonist’s quests harder than it would be without the subplot.
5 Subplot tells something that deepens our understanding of the protagonist.

The Purpose of Subplot

  • The subplot adds tension in the first half of the story, while the main plot is still building. Later, it can still be used in pacing in moments when the main plot is in temporary lull.
  • Subplots can provide backstory and other information in a more interesting way than exposition.
  • Well handled, they can deepen the story’s context. It co-develops the protagonist.
  • It can offer ways to mirror or contrast with the main action.
  • Subplot also creates meaningful relationships between characters while raising the stakes for the protagonist.
  • They can generate suspense when the narrative splits off to follow the subplot for a while before rejoining the main action, generally with added momentum and impact when they again converge.
  • It can keep the main plot from bogging down and becoming predictable.

The mirroring Subplot

The mirroring subplot resolves around secondary characters in similar situations as the protagonist. What happens doesn’t necessarily have a direct external effect on the protagonist, the effect is internal. It changes the way the protagonist sees his own situation because this plot line reveals alternative ways to resolve a question or problem. The subplot tends to arc in the opposite direction as the main plot line. Often, this plot line answers the unspoken question of “This is what you wished for, are you sure its what you want?”

How to Write Subplot

Start the first sub-plot right after the beginning (when you open act II). If the sub-plot is  centred on someone other than the protagonist, make sure the readers have gotten to  know the character well enough before the story splits off. Finally, remember that like main plots, subplots need developments, crisis, big scenes, and resolution.

Cowgill, L. (2008) The Art of Plotting – Add Emotion, Suspense and Depth to your Screenplay.
Cron, L. (2012) Wired for story: the writer’s guide to using brain science to hook readers from the very first sentence.
Dibell, A. (1988) Plot.
Truby, J. (2007) The Anatomy of Story.