Episode 227: Subplot Basics

On April 22, 2023, Kasie and Rex took on subplots: the types, uses, and instructions thereof. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day



  • What is a subplot?
  • Does your book need them?
  • How to write a subplot
Subplots happen in the background but support the main story. | Photo by Irina Iriser on Pexels.com

We’ve done plot twists, internet grab bag, and outlines so far this month. We’ve been all over the map. And the madness continues this week as we take on subplots: that un-talked-about thing that writers know they’re supposed to know but pretend they don’t know.

Watching The Goldbergs I was reminded of the power of subplots: shadow point making. When a story has a specific idea its working on, the subplot reflects that idea, reinforces it. No place is this done better than in the sitcom The Goldbergs. An episode we watched this week (that was probably from like February since we DVR them) had two storylines: 1) Erica and Jeff have a debate about whether Jeff’s parents are “fun” for the baby to spend time with, they challenge his parents to step up their game and they meet the challenge; they don’t however, explain how exhausted they are afterwards; 2) Pop-Pop is expected to move out, back into his own apartment that has been repaired, but he doesn’t want to; he doesn’t express his desire to stay, instead, he tries to behave in a way that elicits the invitation to stay.

Both plots are about being wanted and how we respond to that need or want; both plots were about not being able to express the desire or the truth of what it costs to be that vulnerable.

Why am I making our radio listeners read this recap of a sitcom? Because it illustrates what we’re talking about here: subplots.

So what is a subplot?

It’s a supporting side story, according to this link (Wikipedia). What does that mean? Well, it means it’s running alongside the primary plot, some subplots begin after and/or wrap up before the main plot. It’s a plot in-and-of-itself but interacts with the main plot in one or more ways:

  • Provides depth to side characters
  • Complicates or derails the main story in some way
  • Provides some relief from the intensity of the primary plot (think Karen and Jack in the Will and Grace series)
  • Support the central theme of the primary plot

Here are the most common types of subplots (direct quote from this link):

  • Mirror Subplots; a smaller-scale conflict mirrors that of the main character in order to teach them a valuable lesson or illuminate how to resolve the conflict
  • Contrasting Subplots; a secondary character faces similar circumstances and dilemmas as the main character but makes different decisions with the opposite outcome
  • Complicating Subplots; a secondary character makes matters worse for the main character
  • Expository Subplots; a character from the past or near present shows how their actions shape the reality your protagonist inhabits
  • Romantic Subplots; the main character has a love interest, and this relationship complicates the main plot

Segment 2/3

You have to keep track of them. You have to think them up. It’s hard work.

Here’s some tips from Writers Life Wednesday (link).

Subplots aren’t just plots – they’re characters’ experiences – I want this side character to learn… Write the name of the character, their role in the story, and how they’re going to impact the point of the story; example: Pride & Prejudice – Jane’s subplot is eligible sister, wants to make a good match and hopefully find love, she falls in love with wealthy and charming Bingley and the relationship raises red flags for Bingley’s friend Darcy and Darcy’s interference causes complications for the Elizabeth/Darcy primary plot. – When subplots stop affecting the protagonist, they’re dull. Character, Role, Agenda, Impact.

If the subplot is not impacting the protagonist or the main story in a meaningful way, it’s not working.

Okay, here’s another link with some types and examples of impactful subplots:

  • Romantic subplot: make the protagonist vulnerable (think superhero’s weakness) or raise the stakes (think Speed)
  • Comedy subplot: relieve the tension of the primary narrative (think St Elmo’s Fire and the burial of the stepmonster “Maybe I should just dress her up like a cat?”) – make sure it stems from the right place (how financially strapped Jules is and why she’s thinking up unique ways to dispose of her stepmother’s body)
  • Thematic subplot: the Jane Bennett / Mr. Bingley plot applies here; the agenda is to find an appropriate match that hopefully leads to love; that’s exactly what Elizabeth wants.
  • Character background subplot: provide insight to character, add depth to the current narrative; good example is the parallel timeline in The Godfather II where we watch Vito Corleone establishing his place in the neighborhood while Michael is taking the reins of his father’s empire.
  • Narrative subplot: where part of the plot splinters off and becomes so much on its own that it must intersect with and affect the main plot – Stand By Me and the initiation of Charlie and Billy into the gang; they have the information about the dead kid and whether they’ll keep it to themselves or spill their guts is the subplot until they spill and Eyeball and Ace end up at the location threatening Gordy and Chris. 

Segment 4

Here’s the how-to link (we used it earlier):

  • Pick a type (see segment 1)
  • Must have an arc of its own
  • Have at least one character tied to the main plot
  • Add something new to the overall story
  • Support the main plot (in theme, action, or voice)

Also, from this link (also used earlier) ask these questions:

  • How does this subplot support the story’s themes?
  • What does your subplot add in terms of characterisation?
  • How does this subplot alter the main plot for the better?
  • What does this subplot convey that couldn’t be conveyed in a more condensed way (for example, within one scene)?

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