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The Power of Page-Turning Subplots

Updated: Mar 2, 2020

Did you know that subplots can be more potent or poignant than the plots they sprout from? There's a lot to be said for writing powerful subplots.

It’s true. And to prove it, consider Star Wars.

In Episode IV, A New Hope, how many people cared more about Luke Skywalker’s quest to “use the force” than they did Han Solo and Princess Lei’s side story?

Luke was the protagonist. He was the main character. And the plot centered around whether or not he could harness the force enough to take on the evil empire.

Yet to many moviegoers, neither that protagonist nor that plot provide the biggest reason to watch and re-watch the film. Instead, it’s two secondary characters – the swashbuckling intergalactic pirate and the capable but seriously harassed and now homeless ruler – who draw them in, complete with the subplot of whether or not they can make it work.

That secondary story is engaging enough to make fanboys and fangirls out of people who otherwise consider Luke Skywalker to be a big, whiny, boring baby.

That’s the potential power of a subplot: to keep people interested in seeing a narrative through to the end. No matter what.

What else can we say about writing powerful subplots?

I know I picked on poor Luke in the previous segment – and I know that probably ticked some people off – but there are plenty of other examples I could use of how worthwhile subplots can be.

And even for those instances where the actual plot really does dominate, subplots act as icing on the proverbial cake. So here’s one highly recommended way to handle them.

Pick at least one subplot to really emphasize.
As mentioned in Tuesday’s Writing Definition, just because a subplot isn’t the main conflict “doesn’t make it automatically small or unimportant.” In fact, subplots can be the real reason readers keep flipping pages. So if/when you find a good one that compliments your character(s)’ main objective, play it up and play it out.
While the protagonist(s) run about trying to not die or otherwise succumb to dangerous elements, make sure they’re also striving for that subplot to be fulfilled, pursuing it with a passion that draws readers right in.

That way, if you have a good plot, it keeps things fresh. And if you have a bad plot, it keeps them pursuable.

So what makes for a powerful subplot? Hate to break it to you, but that really depends on your plot.

Is the main character trying to take the throne? Perhaps he has a neglected child who desperately wants his attention while he desperately seeks power.

Will he ever notice his daughter? Or will he accomplish his objective without ever obtaining anything of real value?

That’s a subplot right there.

Is the main character trying to escape from her kidnappers? One of them is obviously struggling with his role in the abduction.

Will he be a man and do the right thing, or just continue to do as he’s told?

That’s a subplot as well.

And there are countless other ones out there to explore. Romantic ones. Dramatic ones. Personal ones. Practical ones.

More than likely, you’ll find a few developing on their own. As they do, analyze each one to see which could truly take off.

Either that, or you could ask a professional brainstormer for help. That’s always an option too.

Editor’s Note: Read the next post on subplots here.

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