Updated: Mar 2, 2020
C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe follows a schoolgirl who discovers an extraordinary wardrobe. Inside its doors, she finds Narnia, a magical land just waiting to be explored.
Together with her two brothers and sister, she discovers that the land has been enchanted to always be winter by an evil witch, who keeps everyone terrified of her ruthless ways.
But there’s another power at work: Aslan, the great lion who vows to overthrow the White Witch once and for all. He inspires the children to stand bravely on his side, using the gifts he gives them to do their part in the battle to come.
In the end, Aslan and the children win. The witch dies. And never-ending winter is broken.
That’s the plot: a classic good vs. evil tale through and through – and a worthwhile, enchanting, encouraging one at that. Yet that’s not the only story thread one can find in this young adult classic.
There’s also a subplot or two worth telling, such as the redemption story of a selfish and broken boy… of the witch’s spy and whether she can be saved… and of the growth it takes to transition from a child to an adult.
No doubt, I’m missing a few. For all the childish delight it provides, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a very complex book.
Then again, far less complex books can have just as many subplots as well. It’s the nature of a novel.
Subplots can be big, bold, beautiful, brash, bracing, or blissful. It depends on the story, its writer and its writer’s skills.
But for all of its possibilities, every single subplot can be boiled down to a simple definition.
A subplot is a mini-issue or mini-quest that takes place within the context of a larger story. It might be a love connection that develops while two characters try to save the world from aliens. Or perhaps the protagonist needs to learn something about himself while surviving high school. Whatever it is, it’s not the main conflict, but that doesn’t make it automatically small or unimportant.
Most stories, especially longer ones like novels, naturally develop another subplot or two or three. And there’s a very good reason for this that’s worth exploring...
Before we get into that “very good reason,” it’s first important to acknowledge that, unlike plots, subplots don’t have to run the full length of a novel. They can be resolved halfway through the story, three quarters of the way through or even at the very end after the larger plot does.
(You know those final chapters that wrap up all the extra details with a neat little bow? They’re too often sloppy messes that way, but they typically deal with addressing subplots regardless.)
For that matter, if we’re talking about a series, subplots don’t have to end at all by the last page. They can continue on into Book 2, Book 3 or all the way through Book 45.
Which brings us right back to that “very good reason” for subplots’ existence.
As we mentioned last week, plots are dry as dirt. But the characters those plots revolved around? They’re complex. Even complicated.
That’s because characters are always based off of real human experiences and real human emotions, no matter whether they’re real humans themselves. And real human experiences and real human emotions are a tangled-up mess of past, present, future and so much more.
We never just have one thing going on in our lives. We have our families and friends, educations and experiences, strengths and weaknesses, pride and fears influencing us at any given moment. Moreover, everyone we come into contact with has their own issues and factors they’re dealing with, which they then bring into our lives to some degree or another.
That makes for a lot of subplot potential, some of them minor and some that keep those pages turning. It’s amazing how much power a subplot can have… lions, witches, wardrobes and all.
Editor’s Note: Read the next post on subplots here.