One thing that I've discovered while writing my own stories over the years, is the 'lacking' presence of added depth when I only have one situation going on from beginning to end. Now, this may be just a personal preference of mine...but when I'm focused on two boys and one issue, the theme of the story itself feels really basic and seems to fall 'flat' to me sometimes. Like something is missing. Nothing major, really...but it's similar to a cook tasting their food and thinking, "Hmmmm...I need a little more salt. Or butter. Or garlic." Etc. I like to build a story that feels a bit more full when it comes to the plot that I put together.
This is when I begin thinking of some of the other characters in the story, and what's going on around them as well. Seriously .What's going on with them? This is when I begin wondering about certain 'subplots', and how I can, maybe, weave them into the overall plot and include them into what's going on with the main characters.
Now, if subplots seem distracting or unnecessary to you, then I won't tell you to force it into a project where they aren't needed. That's an instinct that you can choose to develop or not develop as you see fit. Sometimes a short story is just fine as a short story, and it doesn't need to be overworked with anything extra, bogging the story down. But, whenever I'm writing anything longer than a few chapters, I like to add a little more meat to the world that my narrative takes place in. It's just the way my brain works, I suppose. I often write in the first person perspective, so all of the story's major events are basically surrounding that one character and how he sees the world from his point of view. But when I introduce a love interest, or a best friend, or a parent, or a few co-workers...I'm always thinking about ways to flesh out those characters in ways that will keep them from just 'being there' as background for no apparent reason. Who are these people? What are their lives like? What are their motivations and why are they important to the plot? In my head, every single character that I use to populate my story has a fully fleshed out backstory of their very own. Something that gives their character a few added layers and explains who they are and what their purpose is. Even if they only show up briefly from time to time, and none of that backstory ever shows up in the story itself...it's right there in the back of my mind the entire time. And, if any of you read my article on 'Show, Don't Tell', then you'll remember that it's not enough to just tell the history of this character in passing in order to reveal their motivations and give them a meaningful personality. If they're in your story, give them something to do. If they have nothing to do...cut them out. You won't need them. I can't stress that enough. I know you might be attached to them in one way or another...but don't cradle useless characters in your project if you can avoid it. It will only drag you down in the long run.
BUT...if you have people populating the world that you're trying to build, and they're pushing the plot forward, even if it's in a minor way...then their presence will have a purpose. And your story will be that much better for it.
For this article, we're talking about 'subplots'. How to craft them, what they mean, and how to use them to enhance your writing to further flesh out your story and make it all that you intended it to be.
So, question number one is simple...what is subplot?
When writing your story, you have a main focus and a series of goals that you want your protagonist to accomplish. This is your plot. What is it that your main character wants to do? He wants to get his dream job in Hollywood. He wants to ask that beautiful stranger out on a date. He wants to come out of the closet to his friends. He wants to find the one weapon that will help him defeat the alien horde that is arriving within the next few days to take over the Earth. Whatever. This is what you should concentrate on the most when it comes to your writing. Figure out what the most important part of your story is, and use that as a guiding light to take you from beginning to end.
Now...what is the subplot? Subplots take part just on the outside fringes of the story you're trying to tell. It's a third dimension to a two dimensional plot. There are going to be times when simplicity is the best way to go...but for longer stories or series, I think subplots really do help out a lot. And it's great for solving any 'pacing' issues that may pop up when your main story is moving from one major event to another. So keep that in mind.
Take a moment and think about your own life. You have thoughts, dreams, and desires, right? You do things, you say things, you win, and you lose. But you're not alone in this world. If you have a close friend...how do these things affect them? How do they affect your parents? If you're gay, but in the closet...your new romance with the cutest boy on the block may be your main goal...but the struggles you may face with coming out to your other friends and family may play a part in you being fully happy. That's not the main focus of your story, but it definitely factors in to every situation that you're dealing with as a whole. Right? Maybe the 'best friend' character rejects the protagonist for his feelings, or for keeping his true feelings a secret. Maybe the parents aren't really 'gay friendly', and your main character is struggling with the fear of being kicked out of the house or simply disappointing them by being different. Now, these issues aren't meant to be a major distraction from the main plot, nor is it meant to overshadow it in any way. Instead, they are just giving your readers a different perspective of what's going on from an entirely different angle.
Can you tell a short story with just a boy that wants to meet another boy and fall in love? Of course you can. And you don't have to stress yourself out too much, over complicating the story with extra details when you can just tell a simple story and be done with. But if you're writing an extended series, I personally think that it gets to be a little bit boring after a while, just dealing with the same main character's thoughts and his constant gushing over the love interest. How many ways can you come up with to say, "He's so beautiful and I love him!" before your readers get a little exhausted with it? (Guilty of this myself. So I'm not throwing stones. Trust me!)
By introducing a strong and effective subplot into your story, not only does it spice things up a little bit, offering opportunities for a few surprises and added drama...but it can be used to give your readers a much needed break from the monotony of two people saying, "No, I love YOU more! Mwah mwah mwah!" That gets old pretty quick. It's fine for a short story, but for a longer series...you're going to need to thicken that gravy a little bit more to keep your audience locked in.
To give an example, I'd like to start with the movie, "Titanic". Now, I'm sure that most of you reading this know about the tragedy of the Titanic, even if you haven't seen the movie. The ship hit an iceberg, sank to the bottom of the sea, lots of people died. (Sorry, spoiler alert! Hehehe!) However...the one thing that audiences know about the Titanic and what happened to most of the people on board...is not the plot of the movie. It's the subplot of the movie. What is taking center stage here is the romantic love story between a lower class boy who was able to sneak on board the ship thanks to a lucky gambling hand, and a very wealthy upper class woman who is unhappy with her life but doing all she can to basically sell her soul for the sake of living a better life. THAT is what the movie is all about, essentially. The subplot adds a sense of anxiety and dread, sure...and it makes for one hell of an action set piece near the end of the film, but it's not the main focus of the story. It is the third dimension that helps to support the main story and create tension and and a powerful impact to the story you're watching unfold before your very eyes. It 'thickens the gravy'.
Here is the trailer...
The whole point of a subplot is to enhance the main focus of the big picture. It gets other people in your story, or sometimes just the environment itself, involved in a way that will bring your narrative to a head, and give some sort of backstory, as well as some foreshadowing, simultaneously. When you're adding other people into the mix, things become slightly more complex when it comes to storytelling. You now have another person to deal with. Ok...so how are the current events affecting him or her through all of this? What are the stakes involved when it comes to them being a part of your main character's life? And what issues of their own do they have to deal with? It doesn't have to be a huge deal or something that's going to take over the whole story on its own...but I always feel that you should have something going on with this other character if they're going to be a part of your plot. Otherwise, they're just a mask for random exposition. A very thin one at that. People can tell when someone is just there to provide the reader with information to move the story forward and nothing else. You don't want to let the audience see your secrets. Not if you can help it.
I've found that when I'm writing subplots for my stories, there should be a certain cohesive feel to them when it comes to the main plot. I like for things to come full circle in my work. So I may stray from the main focus to concentrate on some of the side characters for a chapter or two...but I always keep the main characters involved. Don't ever let them disappear from your story completely...or it's going to feel like a total off ramp from the road you started on. Don't stray too far from your original story. One problem that I've come across in some of my writing over the years is that my subplots sometimes get to be more popular than the main story. I had to work and practice to make both stories relevant to my readers, without letting either one fall so far into the background that it's no longer of interest to my audience. The best example of this is what happened with "New Kid In School", where the story of characters like Tyler and Ariel was the only thing that people were really looking for...making it hard to get back to Ryan and Randy, who were supposed to be the main draw. Subplots are all about figuring out who is going to take center stage and get the spotlight from chapter to chapter. Just remember that when one person is in the spotlight...the others are in the dark. Leave them in the dark for too long, and your readers will forget about them.
One of the very FEW complaints that I've ever had about James Cameron's films, deals with this particular issue. And I love James Cameron's work with a passion. However, if you've ever seen "Terminator 2"...there are a few subplots about John Connor bonding with the cyborg, and Sarah trying to prevent an apocalyptic future from ever happening. Interesting and engaging subplots, indeed. But after about 40 minutes...the actual T-1000 terminator shows up again, and I was like..."Oh yeah! I forgot he was even in this movie! Yeah, they're being hunted, aren't they?" Now, why did I lose sight of the main plot of the movie? Because the subplot took center stage for so long that it put me into an entirely different frame of mind. And it takes some practice and discipline to find your own particular balance with this kind of writing, but you're going to want to figure out how keep your main plot and your subplot running alongside one another smoothly at the same time for future projects. It's one of those things that you'll need in your utility belt for later.
I feel that the best way to do that is to have both of your plots run, equally, while you're writing, and make sure that they intertwine and connect in ways where each individual story boosts one another up to the next level with added depth and meaning. That's been my technique for years, and I always stick with what works.
Down below are a few more trailers, where the subplots run as a parallel to the main story. You'll see, the major plot of your story can be very simple, straightforward, and to the point. It's simply a matter of detailing who your main characters are and what it is that they want to accomplish by the end of the tale. Subplots merely add a bit of finesse and enhance your characters' motivations by explaining why they're doing whatever it is that they're doing.
In the first movie, "Saint Ralph", the goal of the main character is to rise up from being a troubled youth at a Catholic school, and training to run a marathon in hopes of winning it despite all of the people who are doubting him. Very simple, very easy to absorb. But the side story or subplot deals with the fact that his mother is very sick. And he needs a holy 'miracle' in order for her to get better. So the whole movie is not just about him training for the marathon and being ridiculed or discouraged by the people who say he can't do it. The real heart of the film comes from the 'WHY'. Why is he doing it? What are the stakes? What's his motivation? With that extra story running alongside the main plot, the audience gets much more invested in what's going on. Now you've got yourself a cheering section, because they know a bit more about what's going on here.
In the second movie, "1408", we have a writer who goes from place to place searching for definitive proof of the paranormal activities that people claim to be witness too. A pursuit that has never produced any results for him...until now. And he's forced to question whether it's real or not. Now...how do you add an extra layer of meaning to a movie like this? With a subplot that introduces the question of 'why' he's doing this. It just so happens that he lost his daughter to an illness, and is skeptical about whether or not her spirit lives on or if she's in a better place. That adds a lot to the story. It increases the stakes, whether he's proven right or wrong. It gives the main plot a level of depth that it didn't have before. And that's what you're trying to accomplish when writing subplots of your own.
Check out the trailers...
I've found that telling a variety of stories all at once, switching from spotlight to spotlight, but still having them all exist in the same literary 'space', can really keep your readers engaged and invested in whatever story it is that you're trying to express when it comes to writing a longer story. Readers are looking for things to interest and excite them when it comes to your project. You've allowed them to learn your main character first, then allowed them to get to know your love interest. That takes, maybe two chapters? Three? So now what? What will you add to keep their interest once you've got them hooked. You won't make another ten chapters with just that one pursuit being the only focus of your story. I wouldn't be able to do it either. There's got to be something more happening behind the scenes.
I have a story called, "A Class By Himself", which is a tornado of different stories all going on at once. The main character and his mother, the main character and his love interest, the main character and a 'third party'...then there's bullying at school, and his friend from back home, and a love triangle, an internal struggle with his own sexuality, and his financial limitations...but they're all tied together in a way where all of this manic situations are all spinning in the same literary 'space'. If that makes sense. They are all a part of the protagonist's growth and his ability to overcome the obstacles in his way to finally reach the end of his story arc. (At least, I HOPE that's how readers will see it, after all those years of planning! Hehehe!) They are all leading somewhere. And that's exactly what I wanted.
I know that it takes me forever to update 'this' story and 'that' story...but when people see the finished product, I really do hope that they'll see where all of the puzzle pieces fit together at some point. And how I've been building up to the grand finale gradually over time. Something to say, "Ohhhh...NOW I see why Comsie did that!" You know?
Again, not easy...but far from difficult once you've gotten enough practice at writing stories of your own. You've always got to keep the past, the present, and the future, of your story in your mind at all times when you're writing. It makes for a better story. And your readers will thank you for it in the long run. K?
I hope this tidbit of advise helps you guys out! And keep writing! You guys are the future of this shit! So make it count!
Love you all! Now go out there, and do it better than I ever could! Comsie needs entertainment too! Hehehe!