I remember reading somewhere about someone in the film industry rejecting most of the screenplays that crossed his desk for lack of subplot. Side story is essential to creating depth to the main story and often provides context and background to the main story, increasing focus, tension and conflict - drawing the reader in to the web the author has woven.
Subplot and Plot: Weaving a Narrative From Story and Sidestory
What is a Subplot?
A subplot is a side story - the main narrative contains all the themes and the main thrust of your story, while the subplot is a story within a story that supports the main one. In a detective novel, for example, it might be a love story between one of the suspects and his girl. This was a device often used by Agatha Cristie, for example, in her Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot novels. It gives the reader a reason to care whether the murderer is discovered or not, particularly when it looks like the odds are stacked against the young lovers and one of them is going to be arrested for murder, even though they're innocent.
Creating a Compelling Subplot
Subplots can use several devices, depending on their function. They can be used to create contrast with the main story - for example, in James Cameron's film, Avatar, the contrast was created by the polarity between the natives and the human armed forces, posing the question: who is civilised and who the savages? The sergeant's obsession with destroying the hero drew the audience into caring, not just that the planet survived, but also that the hero did - and that there was some way he could be with his girl.
Subplots can also be used as light relief, to depressurise during the build-up of tension in the story - a device often used by Shakespeare, so you'll be in good company with this one. One of my favourite authors, Rex Stout, always used the relationship between Nero Wolfe and his sidekick, Archie Goodwin, in this way. Although their relationship was always professional in front of outsiders, part of Archie's function was to goad Wolfe into working and to act as a sounding board for his genius - often with dialogue that left the reader smiling in sympathy with them both. The function of this subplot, used in every story, was also to make Wolfe seem more human and approachable. Seeing him through the eyes of Archie Goodwin made the self indulgent genius detective a more sympathetic character. Without Archie, Wolfe would be, frankly, loathsome.
Subplots can also be created by changing point of view. I do this in my novel The Reiki Circle, switching between Millie Garner, Sergeant Amos and Red Heart, the murderer. It is, as you can no doubt surmise, one of my favourite devices. It enables the reader to see the main circumstances from several angles, allowing the reader to build a three dimensional image in their minds. It also allows the writer to build a deceptive picture, drawing them into a false sense that they know what's going on and to drag a few perfectly natural looking red herrings across their field of vision.
Another device, particularly useful in period pieces, is the use of newspapers contemporary to the time in which the story is set. Since the moveable type printing press was invented in the mid Fifteenth Century and news sheets were only available from the late Fifteenth Century, with limited access by an illiterate population, this device can really only be useful from the Industrial Revolution onwards. Increasing literacy in the population, the emergence of the Press Barons and the development of tabloid newspapers, however, when interwoven with the main story can form a useful backdrop, placing it in the context of the time and can be a useful method of providing information to the reader without having to give too much explanation. This is a device that is often used in Science Fiction - obviously, the author is not using real newspapers or articles from "The Encyclopedia Galactica" or whatever, but that kind of strategy can be very useful to support the main narrative.
Subplots as Distraction
We writers are easily distracted. The function of a subplot is to support the main story, not to detract from it. When we fall in love with the young lovers, or the evil anti hero, we lose our focus on the main story: instead of complementing the story, the subplot can sabotage it. Focus on the main story is paramount and all subplot devices should be part of that focus.
And, yes, a subplot is a strategy, but this should not be too obvious to the reader. When the side story appears too contrived, the reader loses interest and the story loses its edge.
Narrative and Subplot
To sum up: a subplot is a narrative device designed to create depth, texture, contrast and tension or release of tension. Its function is to support the main story in a variety of ways.
The best novels have at least one subplot and often quite a few!
How do you develop subplots in your novels? Share your thoughts in the comments below - and this post with the buttons liberally sprinkled around the page!