"All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us." —J. R. R. Tolkien

Sunday, January 18, 2009


So I've been thinking a lot about plots and subplots lately. One thing I'm really trying to work on is knowing my plot and using it to drive the novel forward. Which is simple, right?

In theory I totally get this (at least I understand it).
But then comes the subject of subplots.

  • What defines a subplot?
  • When are subplots needed?
  • When are subplots OK even when not needed? (Must they tie into the main plot and if so how majorly?)
  • How many subplots are too many?
  • How many subplots are too few?
  • If we put in subplots don't we run the risk of going off too far from our main plot?
  • Am I the only writer who wonders about this subject?

I'm sure we can all pull out the old Harry Potter example and say, "Look at all the masterful subplots JK Rowling managed so well in Harry Potter."
But in all seriousness, who cares if the house elves have hats knitted for them (HP5)? While reading it, I certainly didn't care. And when making the movie, what was the first thing to go? Hats for the house elves.
Second, since I did mention Harry Potter, I contend that a first-in-a-series novel would never get published with such a subplot in it. The editor would be like, "We need to cut words. Get rid of the knitted hats."
So, please for the purpose of this discussion, if you mention Harry Potter, stick with book 1.

So really, please weigh in with your thoughts. I'll hold my thoughts to myself so I don't sway any opinions!


Christine M said...

How many subplots are too many or too few - I think too few: when the story is too linear, too straight forward, a few subplots could make it better.

Too many - when you can't keep track of the thread of the story because of all the little sub-stories (think some of the day-time soap operas - which I haven't watched in years, but I'm sure it's still the same situation)

I know I didn't give numbers there - but I don't think it's a matter of numbers - it's what your story can handle. And maybe there is a magic number (and if there is, what is it, I want to know)

I think that subplots work best (and actually only really work) when they tie back into the main story in some way.

And I wish I could think of a good concrete example for you - but I can't right now. I'll check in again later, if I think of one.

This is a great question by the way.

PJ Hoover said...

Thanks, Chris! Great response. I totally agree that when subplots tie back into the main plot *in a totally convincing way* this works the best.
In our critique group we should use our manuscripts as examples and talk about what we feel are subplots in each (offline of course).

Christine M said...

That's a great idea!

C.R. Evers said...

I think a subplot needs to mean something. Something that will move the story along in either action or emotion or some sort of character transformation.

But maybe that's just me.

How many? I don't think that matters if the subplot is going to help the story to move.

Good thought provoking post!


Miriam S.Forster said...

Humm... Well, since I just finished reading The Adoration of Jenna Fox, I'll use that as an example.

The main plot in Adoration is a girl who wakes up after an accident, and tries to figure out who she was, what was done to save her, and what that means for her and her future.

There are some minor subplots in the book, mostly involving her relationship with other people and they mostly augment the larger plot question: What does it mean to be human?

There's her relationship with her new friend Allys, a girl maimed by the consequences of overused science. Allys is the opposing viewpoint to Jemma's parents, because she believes that science needs to be limited and controlled within the current laws. This subplot gives us a view of what the larger world would think of Jemma's situation.

Another one of Jemma's peers is a boy named Dane, who is in some ways the most normal person in the book. However, he's also an empty psychopath who takes pleasure in destruction and revenge. In many ways Jemma is more human than he is, which leads the reader to think about what is it that really makes us people as opposed to monsters.

There are more subplots including a romantic one, but they all feed into the main plot and highlight the questions about herself that Jemma is trying to answer.

I think that is subplot's main job, to move the story forward in a way that gives us a deeper understanding of the characters, the main plot, or the central idea.

As for how much is too much, I think that like so many other things it writing, it's a matter of feel and experience.

PJ Hoover said...

Christy, I like how you mention it tying to character transformation. That is a great thought to hold on to.

Miriam, Jenna Fox is a great example. One thing I noticed was that the Dane subplot never really felt like it played out into anything. I kept expecting a confrontation of larger proportion. It almost felt like it was added in later.
But I'd totally agree on the budding friendship and romantic relationship being subplots, and they were both used very effectively and creatively.

Thanks, guys!

Miriam S.Forster said...

Yeah, I was surprised the Dane thing didn't go further too, it didn't really feel resolved to me. But I did like the way it fed into Jemma's thoughts about what she might be missing.

PJ Hoover said...

True, Miriam. It did tie in, just maybe not as much as its potential.
Thanks for the thoughts!

Beth Kephart said...

A subplot bolsters, deepens, thickens, but it must resonate and somehow inform the primary action in the book. There need to be collisions.

lotusgirl said...

Subplots enrich the main story. They throw up smoke screens when you're in a suspense or mystery plot. You gotta have them. I think it depends on too many variables to be able to limit to a specific number, but you don't want to have too many or they can take away from the main storyline.

Patty P said...

I love subplots. To me, they make a story rich and complex. I have a hard time keeping the subplots in my stories tie in with the character's internal or external conflict or basically making any sense at all. Not an easy thing to do, but oh-so fun.

PJ Hoover said...

I think collisions must be a requirement, too, Beth. That's a great way to look at it!

Yes, Lois! Too many and the main plot would disappear. I agree!

I love seeing masterful subplots, Patty! They do so much for the story.
So are you game for doing this in our critique group?

Happy Monday!

Gottawrite Girl said...

PJ, this is a juicy topic to mull over! I guess my thought is, have subplots - IF you can ensure that the characters involved and what's at stake really MATTERS to the reader. If it's weak... I always say, cut! : ) It's better to have short and powerful than long and bland...

: )

Thanks for posting!

Lapillus said...

I tagged you on my blog, PJ.

As for this post, I think subplots are great but they need to lend something to the story. There's no magic number - just what works - and that may or may not take awhile and some editing to perfect.

Generally, in my opinion, subplots give the author a chance to build on other characters and pull the story from driving the main plot too far too fast.

Great topic.

PJ Hoover said...

I love what you say, Susan. Better to have short and powerful rather than long and bland. Well put!

Thanks, Casey!
So subplots are used to slow down the main plot and develop other characters. Very true.

Is it even possible to have a plot without subplots?

Laura said...

I think this issue is directly tied to what you want your story to be. If hats on house elves is something that captures your imagination, then that scene stays. Non-negotiable. Some subplots I feel I can't part with. And, I'm not published so maybe that's why:) There is a certain part of the novel I am working on that an agent said I should cut because it didn't move the story forward, but I felt it really gave the reader a firm footing in the alien world that my character inhabited. So, after eliminating the scene, I put it back in.

So much of writing for me this year has been to know the reasons why I wrote the story the way I did, 1st person, present tense, alternating POVs. There's specific reasons why I made these choices. I learned by rewriting in the third, and eliminating scenes [and, sometimes putting them back in]. Going there. Taking suggestions and in the taking I got clearer about my intentions and my story.

I think subplots are like this. Eliminate one and see if the story is the poorer for it.

Good luck with finding your way through the subplot infested forests of your story!

great post.

Jason said...

While the knitted hats seemed (and were) a bit pointless, she had a reasoning for putting that whole bit about the House Elves in. How house Elves are treated plays pretty majorly throughout the whole series. Their treatment and the acceptance is the motivation for multiple house elf characters to drastically effect the plot (Dobby and Kreature). But, I do see your point.

PJ Hoover said...

Laura, eliminating sub-plots to see if the story is better is a great idea. I bet not many authors have the discipline to do this. I'd fight it tooth and nail!

Jason, I pick on the knitted hats because it is something that only JKR could have pulled off. This kind of subplot would not have worked in a first book trying to get published unless the main plot was very different.

Thanks so much, everyone!

Tabitha said...

Wow, some great responses here. I agree that there is no magic number of subplots that every book must have. It just all depends on the book (as does everything). :)

I think Beth said it really well with subplots bolstering, deepening, and thickening. That's exactly what they need to do, AND they need to relate back to the main plot. Otherwise they have no point, because the reader won't care.

In the case of the knitted hats, I'm not sure we can say that this wouldn't work in a first book. If JKR put the hats in book 1, then the rest of the story would greatly change. If JKR stayed with her initial vision of house elves and how they're treated, it might work just fine.

If we map out how the hats fit into the overall story, how will it look?

-Harry meets Dobby the house elf.
-Is Dobby necessary? Yes, he's instrumental at the conclusion of the previous book, where he is set free via an accidental sock.
-Hermione begins knitting socks, hoping other house elves will pick them up and also be freed.
-Dobby takes them all, thus putting a protective barrier between the elves and Hermione's good intentions, as well as keeping him close to Harry.
-We learn exactly what Hermione thinks of slavery, which rounds out her character and paves the way for her to fight for House Elf rights in a less insulting manner.
-This helps her to see people better, and discern the nature of a person by how he treats his elf. Which plays a part in later books.

So, while the hats weren't the most interesting subplot in the series, I think it was just as important as the rest. And, if she laid all this out, I'll bet she could have made a good case for keeping it in book 1. :)

Amy said...

A subplot should be tied to the main plot. When you have something that doesn't directly reflect on/mirror/juxtapose the main plot, it should probably be in its own story.

PJ Hoover said...

OK, I figured it out, Tabitha. You knit, don't you :)
Actually I knit, too. I just like to pick on the knitting of hats for the house elves because the later HP books just exploded in length.
But I hear you. And I agree JKR could have found a way to keep it in book 1 if the plot changed to support it. And if anyone could pull it off, it would be JKR!

Good point, Amy! And I've actually heard of subplots being pulled out and made into their own stories for real. Which in itself is a really fun concept.


Christine M said...

"subplots being pulled out and made their own stories" - that's how When Mike Kissed Emma got it's start.

PJ Hoover said...

Chris, you are EXACTLY who I was thinking of :)

Christine M said...


Well then. I guess it all makes perfect sense. :)

Tabitha said...

LOL!! I don't knit, but I crochet. It's so cool that you knit. :) Engineer, Star Trek, writing, knitting, so many cool things you like! :)

Anonymous said...

I just read about subplots in Donald Maass' book--I don't know that he actually answered all these questions, but it was interesting. He does talk about "how many" and insists on connections to the main plot. And he likes those connections unforced, so recommends looking at the hero's closest circle of family/friends.

And I truly did love the knit hats. :)

PJ Hoover said...

If only I still had time for all of them, Tabitha! This writing stuff sure takes over, doesn't it :)

Oooh, Becky, I like that advice to look at the hero's closest circle of family and friends.
And I figured there would be a support network for the knitted hats when I googled them and found a gazillion websites on the subject.

Thanks for visiting!

Alison said...

I think a lot depends on the book, and when you're writing for kids, on the age level you're writing for. I have few if any real subplots in my middle-grade manuscript right now (I guess there are some, but to me they are so related to the main story, it's all tied together), but it's a story about 9-year-olds, and I originally intended it to be a chapter book. I wanted to keep it simple to keep it short enough and for reading comprehension. But it would be really odd not to have a lot more complexity in an upper midgrade book, or especially in a young adult book.

My first young adult novel manuscript seemed to be too many subplots in search of a main plot. The critiques I got back were mainly that I needed to make it very clear what the main plot was, and make it stand out a lot more. I'm pretty sure someone suggested I remove or downplay some of the subplots, though someone else said she didn't think I had too many--she just thought each one should be pared down and sharpened so that they each had more impact, instead of diluting the larger story. (Those were better critiques than I was expecting, though. I feared I'd be told to cut the whole romance subplot, which showed up out of nowhere when I was writing it, but no one suggested cutting that!) Embarrassingly, I never have gotten around to doing the major rewrite I need to do on that manuscript, so when I think of it now, I think of it as an overly flat manuscript--flat in that the big stuff and the small stuff is all kind of at the same level when you're reading it. I think I still have a lot to learn about how to balance plot vs. subplot!

Oh, and I agree they should all tie into the larger plot, also. One critiquer told me that at first, she wondered where on earth I was going with some wacky stuff that just seemed thrown in for no reason but quirkiness (and I do tend to like that sort of thing, I admit...), so she had planned to suggest I cut it. But by the end she realized it did tie in with everything, by reflecting things about the character's personality and problems, so she liked it but wanted it to seem more relevant from the beginning.

I was also told I tied up all the plot threads & subplots too neatly at the end! I sure didn't want to leave anything hanging because I hate it when a book introduces a character or thread that seems important & then never mentions it again, but I guess they thought it was all a little too convenient how everything wrapped up at once (even though then main plot ended in a fairly open-ended way). It's all very tricky!

PJ Hoover said...

Hey Alison! Great comment! I can totally see the point about a subplot seeming more relevant from the beginning. I find it frustrating when I am reading something and it jumps off somewhere totally different which I feel has nothing to do with the plot. Then it ties back in, but it doesn't work for me.
Did you read Michael Crichton's Next? I felt this way about this book hugely.

TJ Brown said...

I enjoy subplots if they don't detract from the story too much. That said, there are very few in my writing. Maybe I just haven't mastered them yet. And then, too, I write in first person and it's more difficult.

Greg Leitich Smith said...

Addressing your questions seriatim:

A subplot is simply a plot that is auxiliary to the main plot.

Subplots are always needed, in any book above a chapter book.

For purposes of a novel, they are never not needed. Yes, they absolutely must tie into the main plot. "Majorly" or "minorly" are not relevant -- think binary. There are, however, major and minor subplots, but they all tie into the main plot.

It depends.

It depends.

Not if it's done artfully. (If it reflects the main plot, theme, etc., then it can't get "too far away." But if it does get "too far" from the main plot, then perhaps it is no longer a subplot).


So does that clear it up? :-).

Okay, more about major vs. minor subplots: It might be easier to think of a major subplot as something that reflects the theme, rather than merely a group of actions "related" to the main plot. So, house elves I would argue are a major subplot.

A "minor" subplot can be just some stuff that helps the story go (but again, also ties in to the main plot). In HP, Neville's development would be a minor subplot: the character goes from a somewhat timid, bumbling sort, develops into a master of herbology and leader of the resistance, thanks to Harry's influence...

I think your house elves example is a good one of major plot: they do, in fact, serve a purpose that is not necessarily clear in any one book but for the series as a whole. A series is a unique creature, because it must have an overarching "series" plot, as well as (typically) individual "volume" plots (which are themselves "subplots" to the series plot), as well as individual and multiple volume subplots. And they must all be related.

The house elves, then, serve both a plot purpose as well as a character purpose and are a reflection of the main plot/conflict/characters.

And the key factor with house elves is that they are slaves and slavery is evil and is an activity that no good people would engage in, right? Except that Harry Potter and his friends have no problem whatsoever in keeping (the admittedly distasteful) Kreacher as a slave (because, or so they justify to themselves, Kreacher would otherwise go blabbing to the Sirius's Death Head relatives.). So, how is Harry affirmatively deciding to keep Kreacher as a slave morally different from the Ministry's activities (spying, torture, etc.)? The ends justify the means? And why didn't Dumbledore, the good, free them upon his assuming the headmastership?

So, basically, in this black and white world of good and evil, they are a manifestation of a shade of gray, a reflection of the main good vs. evil plot/theme -- and the idea that good people can do evil, or be blind to evil done in front of them. Recall, too, that Tom Riddle didn't start out evil...

PJ Hoover said...

Interesting point, Teri. You think it may be harder to have convincing sub-plots in first person? Now that is something to consider.

Greg Leitich Smith said...

Oops. This paragraph should read:

think your house elves example is a good one of major SUBplot: they do, in fact, serve a purpose that is not necessarily clear in any one book but for the series as a whole. A series is a unique creature, because it must have an overarching "series" plot, as well as (typically) individual "volume" plots (which are themselves "subplots" to the series plot), as well as individual and multiple volume subplots. And they must all be related.

PJ Hoover said...

Wow, talk about a comment, Greg! So do you knit? Because I can tell you're a fan of those house-elf hats :)

Thanks for the thoughts. What I really like is how you talk about the series being an entirely different creature than an individual book, with each book in a series being a sub-plot itself. Maybe because I tend to write/think in series. And also what it means is successful series need to be given much more thought (like JKR did with the HP novels).

Also I love that you say they are always needed (actually you said they are never not needed, but it's a logical world we live in). They are integral for the main plot.

Thanks for weighing in!

Marcia said...

I see subplots as that deepening and thickening that's been referred to, and also as counterpoint. Subplots show other viewpoints of the main subject that the main plot doesn't cover. For example, in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, Jane and Bingley are the traditional couple and Lydia and Wickham are the scandulous couple, while Elizabeth and Darcy hit the balance Austen wants -- not too safe, not too foolhardy. To fully explore a subject, then, you might need a subplot for each aspect of it that people would normally consider.

PJ Hoover said...

Subplots as counterpoints! That's a great way to look at it, Marcia!
Thanks for weighing in!

Vivian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vivian said...

Great post, PJ!
I just nominated you for a blogger award!

PJ Hoover said...

Thanks, Vivian!

Devon Ellington said...

I think subplots enrich books, especially when they help develop aspects of the character that the main, linear plot wouldn't really get to, and flesh out supporting characters.

"too many" is when they become distracting and you forget what the main plot line is as you read!

I especially like subplots in series books -- some that wrap up with that book's main plot line and some that show potential to continue developing with out distracting from the main plot lines over the course of several books.

PJ Hoover said...

I'm started to notice subplots so much more now, Devon. I can see what works well and what feels a bit out of place and forced.


Christina Farley said...

I have a really hard time with subplots. Ugh. So this comment section was really helpful to me.

Thanks everyone!

Sheryl said...

I love what Beth says about needing the occurance of collisions between plots and sub plots. It's so true.

I come from a background of writing for television and we call them A/B stories. The A story = the main plot. The B story = the sub plot. There's always a connection or parallel or ooh, a collision.

Sometimes the B-story is a metaphor for the theme of the A-story where if you tried to nail that theme in the A-story it would be too 'on the nose'.

Other times the B-story is the contrast to your A-story theme. The B-story also helps with pacing.

This is a great thread and you received a lot of really good comments.

PJ Hoover said...

I loved all these comments, too, Christina!

Sheryl, what a great way to look at it. Story A and Story B. Thanks so much for your insight!