This is an excerpt from Chuck Wendig's book Damn Fine Story.
The arrangement of a narrative is often singular in its focus: It details the peaks and valleys, dips and pivots, of a single story. But a single story needn’t be such a direct thrust. Imagine the metaphor of a roller coaster, but now weave in another roller coaster—perhaps even two rides that, sometimes, somehow become one, if you’re willing to bend your brain around that. In most cases, we refer to those as subplots—the main story is your A-Plot, and subsequent smaller plots are your B-Plot, your C-Plot, and so on and so forth. These plots may or may not be woven in together.
This is fine, and nobody would fault you for looking at narrative this way if you find it helpful.
But I’m going to go a different way.
Worry less about individual subplots, especially as an offshoot of that complicated word plot.
Instead, assume (hopefully quite correctly) that your story comprises a number of characters, all of whom have their own problems and desires and, in the pursuit of solutions and answers, create their own stories. Sometimes these stories form the thrust of the larger narrative, sometimes they form smaller journeys—like taking an exit off the main highway for a while to see the sights. These smaller narratives are what you would consider subplots, but don’t worry about labeling them. Mostly, the goal is to let them again be character-originated and character-driven. Just because they don’t become the main thrust of the story doesn’t mean they're not important—especially not to the characters on those journeys, right? We don’t need to call them subplots.
Instead, think of them as story threads.
A thread is woven into the tapestry. And further, a thread is best when it’s not left hanging—meaning, these “subplots” will eventually tie back into the whole, binding with the narrative overall. They aren’t disconnected. They don’t hang loose. Take these threads and tie them to other threads—to the fabric as a whole.
You can look at it this way: Every character has one main problem and then a series of smaller problems—as few as one or as many as you need. (Though again, heed the rule: Don’t let more snakes out of the bag than you can kill.) A main character or protagonist can take side deviations that address smaller problems. A problem has a solution, and in pursuit of that solution comes the potential for story. In Lost, all of the characters had side stories that spawned in part from their backstories—this gave them depth and complexity, and assured that not all of their problems stemmed purely from their present time on the mysterious island. Television shows, comics, and even novels tend to have more space than other media, and thus, greater opportunity to explore a character and her problems fully.
The larger problem is the rope; the smaller problems are threads. Buffy Summers’ desire to be a normal high school girl while having to fight vampires and having a vampire boyfriend—that’s the rope of the show. It’s the thing we use to grab hold of and pull ourselves through that narrative. But every episode yields new threads: Buffy’s relationship to her mother, to her teachers, to Giles the Watcher, and on and on. She has a lot of smaller problems that don’t dominate the show overall, but that dominate one episode or one season.
(Some video games offer a nice angle on this, too. A role-playing game like Skyrim or Mass Effect—or even any game similar to Metroid—lets you take your character on a variety of “side quests” or ancillary missions to complete different goals, which might include getting a better weapon or answering a question about your backstory or defeating some ancient, irritable goblin king.)
Also worth noting is that these story threads can interact much as the characters themselves do. So-called subplots can either intersect at a perpendicular angle, meaning they slam into the main story and affect it in a head-on-collision kind of way. Or they run parallel, meaning they may never tie into the main story so as to actively affect it, but they still grow and change the character in interesting ways that passively affects the main story—or, at least, reflects upon it. And, just as with characters, these individual story threads can be neither perpendicular nor parallel, meaning they will eventually intersect, though not at a hard right angle—it will be more like two cars traveling on the highway changing lanes, gently passing and crossing one another. Some effect will occur, but until both cars need to take the same exit off of the highway, it’s just trading paint.
Example? Well, in The Princess Bride, you know Inigo Montoya’s saying, right? You can say it with me now. Say it aloud, here we go:
“HELLO, MY NAME IS INIGO MONTOYA, YOU STOLE MY SCOOBY DOO LUNCHBOX, PREPARE … FOR SPANKINGS.”
*is handed a note*
I am informed by my pop culture lawyers that this is actually incorrect.
Apologies to all, and especially to William Goldman and Mandy Patinkin. Let’s try this again:
“HELLO, MY NAME IS INIGO MONTOYA. YOU KILLED MY FATHER. PREPARE … TO DIE.”
That line is integral to his story and, ultimately, sums up his quest. The background is that his father made a special sword for a very bad man, the six-fingered Count Rugen, and then Rugen killed the father and scarred the son. So Inigo devotes his entire life to mastering the blade in order to exact his revenge. It’s not the main thrust of The Princess Bride (though I’d maybe argue that Rugen’s comeuppance is the most satisfying moment in the whole movie), but as a story thread, it works perfectly. It’s neither perpendicular nor parallel—it slowly but surely moves toward the main plot, finally intersecting when he needs to rescue Westley from death to exact his revenge (and, of course, Westley needs Inigo to resurrect him in order to reclaim his love, Buttercup). Those two stories feed one another, clearly weaving together by the end—but the story threads aren’t antithetical or antagonistic, either. They dovetail and become one. Inigo’s story is essential to the story just the same.
And therein lies another lesson.
The decision to include a story thread—a “subplot”—is really about answering, “Is this essential? Does it add to the narrative? Does it shape the overall story and deepen our experience? Does it help to change or reveal one or several of the characters?” If yes, go for it.
If no … then maybe you have a darling that demands to be killed.