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I've recently begun studying subplots, and I've realized I don't know how far I should develop them. Does a subplot need everything a main plot does? Does there even need to be a conflict for the subplot (if it's short), or can it simply be a few scenes that link together to show something related to the main plot?

Before I go any further, let me explain that I develop my novels before writing them. This means I break down exactly what I need in the novel, and how to achieve it. One of the things I do is work with the main plot, and develop the main conflict so that it is complex and cannot be easily resolved. I'm wondering how much of that one does for a subplot.

How much development does a subplot need?

Additionally, do I need separate stakes for a subplot (assuming the stakes for the main plot don't apply to it)? What about additional characterization? My question isn't limited to simply developing the plot.

Note: I'm assuming that the answer to this question will depend very much on the size of the subplot in question. If that is the case, please provide answers for several different sizes of subplots (ie, if the subplot is only a few scenes, you generally do A and B; if it spans three books, you want to do C as well).

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There is no reason to labor over a subplot just for the sake of having one, but if your feel like you need one (or two, or seven) for whatever reasons you might need them, then Mark Baker is right--all the regular rules apply; the stakes, the conflict, the character's mini-arcs, the resolution, etc.

In some cases, subplot lacking a resolution in one novel can even serve as a segue to another story--you are the author, you choose.

It is impossible to tell if a specific subplot works or does not in a particular story without reading the full text wth an intention to take it apart and critique it, just like it is impossible to tell if the one you are planning will work when you finally get to fleshing it out with words.

  • You said a subplot needs all the regular parts, and you used the example of 'character's mini-arcs'. Does this mean every subplot needs a different arc from the main plot? Can I, for example, use the same inner conflict (as I do in the main plot) for a character, or do I need to create a new one for a subplot? – Thomas Myron May 1 '17 at 19:48
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    @ThomasMyron If your sub-plot has the same arch as your main plot, it is not a sub-plot, it is the main plot, even it has different characters involved. The Wheel of Time has hundreds of characters, united by the main plot of the world preparing for and fighting the final battle with evil. It also has scores of subplots with different conflicts, different arcs, and different resolutions; some are love stories, some are power struggles on a less global level, etc. As for the inner conflict of the character: if this is what drives your story, it should be resolved in the main plot... – Lew May 1 '17 at 20:00
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    @ThomasMyron ...else your main plot is lacking consistency. If your character's inner conflict is just something to consider (even if it is something quite noticeable, like fear of heights, bats, rats, or inability to make a commitment to a love interest), and your story id plot-driven, you can use a subplot to resolve your character's conflict, if it is resolvable, of to flash it out. The possibilities are endless. – Lew May 1 '17 at 20:06
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A subplot is a plot. As such, it has the same shape, the same components, the same effect as a regular plot.

The reason you have a subplot is to provide thematic counterpoint of elaboration to the main plot. You need to to be sufficiently worked out to provide the desired elaboration or counterpoint. (Note how in How I Met Your Mother, Barney's philandering and Marshall and Lily's solid relationship provide different counterpoints to Ted's fruitless search for on true love.)

Don't fall into the trap of using a subplot simply as a device to move characters into position for some grand event. Subplots are not about logistics. Ursula LeGuin talks about "Crowding and Leaping" as essential parts of storytelling. Stories don't plod through the mechanics of one event after another. They crowd a bunch of stuff into one place and then make a big leap to the next place that is significant to the development of the story arc. All you need to bridge the gap left by a leap is a few sentences of narrative bridge, not a full subplot.

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    I've done some research, and in addition to helping the theme as you describe, many people say that a subplot can be used to show otherwise-unrevealed aspects of your characters. To me this makes a lot of sense. Would you agree this is a good use of subplot? – Thomas Myron May 1 '17 at 19:46
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    "Don't fall into the trap of using a subplot simply as a device to move characters into position for some grand event. Subplots are not about logistics." Care to elaborate? – Lew May 1 '17 at 19:46
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    @ThomasMyron It can certainly work for that purpose. Same characters, put in a different environment, will reveal they qualities which would remain hidden otherwise. – Lew May 1 '17 at 19:49
  • @ThomasMyron, I would suggest that aspects of your characters should be revealed or not based on their relevance to your theme, so I think it comes to the same thing. – Mark Baker May 1 '17 at 20:36
  • @Lew. Our heros require a McGuffin in order to work the whozits. They sent Tom and Dick to Coventry to get a McGuffin. This is not in itself sufficient grounds for a subplot about their journey. They can just show up 200 pages later with a McGuffin in their saddlebags. Their journey should only be a subplot if it provides counterpoint or elaboration to the theme of the main plot. – Mark Baker May 1 '17 at 20:40

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