Today’s writing Definition of the Week, as posted on Innovative Editing’s Facebook page, is “subplot.”
A subplot is a story line that takes place within the context of a larger story idea. It’s not the main conflict the tale begins with, but it’s still a problem that needs to be resolved.
Don’t worry if that sounds a little vague. The definition itself isn’t tricky. It’s just the execution that may or may not be a pain in the patootie. Though that’s a topic for another day – this week.
For right now, let’s just explore the basics. Here’s a for-instance…
In a mystery, the plot will always center around some whodunnit question, while a subplot might involve a romantic angle such as, I don’t know, the lead detective developing feelings for a key witness.
If that’s the case (Case. Ha!), the plot itself still falls solidly into the appropriate genre, with bad guys and foot chases and clues, dead-ends and all that fun stuff. But in between and around and along with the necessary detective work is a passionate entanglement.
You see, Trina Green, the sassy, mocha-skinned, always-gets-her-man investigator finds herself inexplicably drawn to Franklin Hyde, the blond-haired millionaire playboy who witnessed the original crime go down through a drunken haze.
A natural flirt, he notices how attractive she is: the way that stray, tight black curl bounces whenever she moves her head; the natural pout of her lower lip; the challenge in her dark eyes whenever he tries to evade her questions. And so, since he’d much rather focus on pretty women than eviscerated corpses and the sounds of someone shrieking for help, he makes sure to flash her his best “hey there, cutie” smile while throwing around the kind of innuendos that always worked for him before.
Since Trina is nobody’s fool, she’s well aware that Franklin is uncomfortable with her questions. She’s also well aware that she needs to get the truth out of him regardless. Normally, she’d find his kind of personality exceptionally annoying. He’s definitely not adding to her caffeine-deprived bad mood as she tries to get him to recall or admit anything useful. Yet, at the same time, there’s something about his baby blues and the set of his shoulders that have her gaze straying from the facts.
That attraction right there? That’s the start of a subplot.
Or consider this:
Leroy Ackerson is what most people think of as a mad scientist even if he doesn’t have white hair standing on end from one too many electrical shocks. Always fascinated by just how far out scientific discovery can take him, he slaves away for four years making a time machine to propel himself into the future.
His experiment seems to work just fine with a lab rat, and then with an oversized rabbit named Num Nums and then with his faithful Labrador, Bart. So Leroy hops into the capsule next, only to find himself traveling in the exact wrong direction back to the English Renaissance.
Stuck in a technology-less society in a shorted-out machine, he has to figure out how to get back to his own time.
That’s the plot.
Here’s the subplot:
Existing during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, Leroy finds out the hard way that she's not so sweet and obliging as 21st-century textbooks led him to believe. Constantly terrified that she’ll lose her throne, she’ll resort to any method necessary to give her a little more piece of mind, even heinously torturing and killing those she deems a threat.
Since she can’t understand Fred in his jeans and T-shirt, she deems him just that and orders him thrown into prison. While he manages to escape, that still adds a whole new level of drama to his accidental adventure, since not only does he have to find a way forward through the fabric of time, but he now has to do it while avoiding the queen’s men.
Who are everywhere.
A strong subplot like that can round out a story, adding depth and detail it otherwise wouldn’t have. And at times, when done just right, it can actually motivate readers to keep flipping pages more than the plot itself.
That’s the power these literary devices wield, so don’t take them for granted even if they automatically sound less important than the terms they’re so obviously derived from.