By Writing Excuses | August 16, 2009 - 6:05 pm - Posted in Theory and Technique

Meanwhile, several side-characters found themselves looking for a sub-plot in the tavern. Something funny, or perhaps romantic to take the load off of the main story, but still tense enough to keep the pace going. Or maybe something that will let them introduce important elements to the main plot without the reader knowing that’s what’s going on…

And that’s pretty much what subplots are, and what they’re for. But if we skip to the ending that way they can’t do their job! So listen to the whole eighteen-minute podcast, and we’ll rejoin our main characters next week, as the automated orbital lance counts down to zero…


This entry was posted on Sunday, August 16th, 2009 at 6:05 pm and is filed under Theory and Technique. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. August 16, 2009 @ 7:10 pm

    Who’s on time? We’re on time. Oh yeah.

    Posted by Dan Wells
  2. August 16, 2009 @ 7:11 pm

    Excellent podcast. Ran a little long, but I didn’t mind at all. Goes well with a recent discussion I had with a fellow writer about themes. This should get a second podcast covering how to attach subplots to characters or how characters carry the subplots forward.

    Again, great podcast.

    Posted by Rafael
  3. August 17, 2009 @ 12:30 am

    Yea! Podcast and early morning work.
    I’m soooo happy.

    Posted by WEKM
  4. August 17, 2009 @ 8:37 am

    I love these. This one was really nice because I have been wondering about it recently. I was glad to be reassured that I am trying to do the right thing. Whether I am actually accomplishing it has yet to be determined. Thank you so much. You guys always make my week.

    Posted by Turgid Bombast
  5. August 17, 2009 @ 9:44 am

    I broke down both a number of Lost and Heroes episodes a while back. I’ll have to go back and check, but if I recall correctly, Lost often had 3-4 stories, Heroes had 6-9. In EACH episode.

    Also, I like how the TV world views this. They don’t call them “subplots,” but “A story, B story, C story.” It makes you realize that they’re stories, and you need to develop them as such–introduce the threat/lack/mystery, complicate, resolve. It’s just that the A story is going to take more stage time and have more twists and story cycles than the D story.

    Posted by John Brown
  6. August 17, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

    “Subplots” sounds like you’re selling space for a grave…beneath another grave. I know overcrowding of cemeteries is a real problem, but don’t you think that’s a little extreme?

    I know my book has two or three subplots, and I think I handle them pretty well. I mean, if you’ve got a group of characters on a journey, and each of them is on the journey for a different reason, that’s fertile soil for some interesting subplots. I try to keep the subplots short, though, and usually bring the narrative back to the main story within the same chapter. Sometimes, though, I wonder what it would be like to write a parallel novel with the same story but with the focus completely shifted to a different character. But that’s probably a bit too advanced for me right now. I’ll stick to getting just these first two books published.

    Posted by AlanHorne
  7. August 18, 2009 @ 3:07 am

    I find myself doing doing fist pumps when I find that the episode is long. Right after which I have to explain to my family members that I’m just an idiot. Nothing to see here. This isn’t the doofus you’re looking for. Move along.

    Thank you for delivering 22 hours, 22 minutes, and 55(.84) seconds of reliably entertaining and enlightening content. Not including the extras on my Season 1 CD. 😀

    Posted by Titus
  8. August 18, 2009 @ 10:26 pm

    Star Trek TNG, DS9 and Voyeger all played on the A story/ B story format. I often felt that they had two stories that weren’t strong enough to fill an hour and so mashed them together. The result was that both failed more times than not.

    I gave up on Heroes because I was interested in only 3-4 of the 9 overall stories running concurrently. I guess I didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to withstand the more annoying characters.

    Posted by Karl
  9. August 19, 2009 @ 4:52 am
    Posted by Mike Barker
  10. August 19, 2009 @ 7:50 am

    It seems to me that the term “subplot” was used in subtly different ways through out the podcast, and that’s the real reason for some of the disagreement, such as the ideal number of subplots. There’s a difference in a subplot that runs through all (or at least most) of a story and a miniplot or microplot that is introduced and then resolved in a shorter section of the story and largely serves to advance the main plot.

    The example of characters who run out of food and must go hunting to survive seems more like a miniplot. It’s introduced as an additional impediment the characters must deal with while trying to resolve the conflict of the main plot, some resolution is found, and the story moves on past it. On the other hand, Vin’s self doubt and her need to deal with her past in _Mistborn_ is a subplot that runs the entire length of the trilogy. Depending on the length of the work, it seems like there could be many miniplots, certainly more than three to five in a long novel, without detracting from the work. However, more than three to five long-running subplots is difficult to sustain.

    Just my $.02, and thanks for a great podcast!

    Posted by Dan J.
  11. August 19, 2009 @ 6:26 pm

    Dan J,

    You’re statement “introduced as an additional impediment the characters must deal with while trying to resolve the conflict of the main” sounds accurate to me. I had the same thoughts during the podcast. Running out of food is a main plot complication, not a b story. My experience is that you’re going to need a complication or three in every chapter, some large some small. But you certainly won’t be adding that many b stories.

    Posted by John Brown
  12. August 21, 2009 @ 9:35 am

    Curious question, does anybody feel there is a need for subplots within a short story of 11k words? Seems unnecessary due to the still small size and the fact that the payoff of the main plot comes fairly quickly. Certainly a shorter story it would be entirely unnecessary.


    Posted by Clifton Hill
  13. August 21, 2009 @ 10:02 am

    I don’t ever believe I’ve seen a subplot in a short story, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. I’d say do it and see if it works. If it does, then kudos.

    Posted by AlanHorne
  14. August 22, 2009 @ 10:38 pm

    I don’t know if TV screenplays translate to same wordage, but here’s the first episode of Burn Notice:

    17,000 words.

    If it’s roughly equivalent then you certainly can have b and c stories in something even that short.

    Anyone here know the conversion factor?

    Posted by John Brown
  15. February 15, 2012 @ 11:57 am

    I am learning a great many things keep up the awesome :)

    Posted by Shena
  16. October 24, 2012 @ 3:11 am

    We should have a new podcast on subplots, I think. The definition of “subplot” was incorrect for most of this ‘cast. Subplots never mix into the main plot, they only connect with them at times, so something like looking for food because the main characters are hungry is still part of the main plot, not something subsisting separate of it (it’s not exactly something you could remove from the story — they have to survive!). They also generally occur to less important characters. Because of their brevity, short stories generally will not have a subplot.

    Posted by J. David Norman
  17. November 12, 2012 @ 2:17 am

    One thing I’m trying out, is just having one major subplot. But the catch is its more like main plot a, and main plot b in that the subplot is tied very closely to the main plot in that eventually both plots with reach a cross roads. And then it compresses into an overall plot.

    Posted by Sarah