Friday, August 3, 2018

The Importance of a Subplot


When I used to work downtown, one of my regular but awkward ordeals was the periodic doctor’s appointment. My doctor was conveniently a mere six blocks from where I worked, but because it was such a busy practice, getting an appointment before or after business hours was next to impossible. Therefore, my appointment usually ended up interrupting my workday.

These appointments were important to my wellbeing, but they did not mesh well with my career. Rather, they took me away from my job for a valuable hour, sometimes to the inconvenience of coworkers who had little investment in how those doctor visits went. My colleagues focused on work and how my presence or absence affected them. They never realized how crucial those appointments were to maintain my capacity to work, but if I didn’t have those visits, things would fall apart quickly.

Yes, those visits were the perfect subplot.

The story of our life is full of subplots. With a few exceptions, most of them are not worth writing about. If I wrote a story about my working week, would the doctor appointment even need to be brought up? Depending on the story's focus, it may not be relevant, but the appointment may also be a source of tension because it creates a critical scheduling conflict. What happened with my doctor would not matter, only that an important meeting clashed with an appointment, and the situation needed to be resolved.

However, a subplot can be a valuable device in enriching both the story and the characters. A subplot should either inform the reader about important parts of the character that might not otherwise come naturally in the main story arc, or it should create a secondary environment that will at some point collide with the main plot. Obviously, it can do both, but at least one is required.

We can now revisit my appointment situation with an eye toward turning it into an effective subplot (Note to all former coworkers – this is all hypothetical). Let’s say the main story was about trying to rise through the ranks at a very stressful job with pressure to perform and improve the bottom line. Just for fun, let’s make it during the Great Recession to turn up the pressure.

That’s a fine story in itself, but then we offer the subplot: the doctor appointments are for treating dangerously high blood pressure – 220/180 and rising with every new demand from work. We now see the two storylines are going to collide at some point, because the plot and the subplot cannot coincide forever. Work is the main subject, but the subplot makes every part of the main story more tense and compelling. The pivot here is that the reader has to actively worry about the inevitability that these two threads will collide, and the hero will suffer as a result.

As brutally intriguing as that route may sound, the other option can be just as effective. Instead of the situation with high blood pressure, what if the appointments are with a therapist? At those sessions, the hero discusses deep fears of failure, an obsessive urge to please others, past tragedies that now make him a workaholic, or any other problem that would feed into his work life. Now the subplot becomes a tool to give the hero depth and dimension. Because these problems already factor into work, the subplot and the main story arc have already collided, However, these sessions now inform us about the roots of his dysfunction. The reader sees the character develop and begins to understand his dilemma more completely.

The classic book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” is mostly about a man reconnecting with his son as they take a motorcycle trip across the Badlands with a couple of friends. Amidst the sightseeing and philosophical discussions, we are introduced through a series of flashback narratives to a brilliant man who is referred to as Phaedrus. The connection between the main character and Phaedrus is seen as student and teacher, though this is never explicitly demonstrated. Rather, the flashbacks are a subplot that is a story unto itself, challenging the reader to see just how the present-day arc and the secondary story are going to meet. No spoilers here – read the book yourself.

The main danger of using a subplot can come from an imbalance in interests. In the example of going between work and doctor’s appointments, the reader needs to be interested in the subplot just as much as the main arc. Think about stories where there’s that one character you just don’t care about, or that one story line that doesn’t grab your attention. If it’s a character, we can just flip past them. If the subplot of the appointments makes the reader want to skim past, there’s a real problem.

Ideally, the subplot should be able to stand on its own as a smaller story. However, its main purpose is to add energy and depth to the main story. If you can’t explain how it contributes to the main arc, consider leaving it out.

2 comments:

  1. I thought you were still working downtown!

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    1. Different responsibilities take me downtown quite often -- I am in the city most every week. But at least for now, most of my work is done in my home office (plus a lot of writing wherever I happen to be if I have my laptop and an idea)

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