They say we’re all the lead characters in our own stories. But what about other people’s stories? I have this horrible feeling — now and then — that I’m not a main character at all. I’m just a minor character (comic relief, perhaps), and my life is a subplot in the story of someone I know.
I bring this up because I want to point out how important subplots are. They shouldn’t be relegated to the role of “rounding out a character” or “adding some drama to a narrative.” The subplots — and the characters who make them — are heroes in their own stories.
Think about Charles Dickens’ classic tale A Christmas Carol. The story is about the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly and cold character who must learn the true spirit of Christmas. But Dickens also weaves in a marvelous subplot about Scrooge’s employee, Bob Cratchit. The story of Bob and his poor family is every bit as important as Scrooge’s story. In fact, it’s so important to Scrooge that it becomes a part of his salvation. A Christmas Carol wouldn’t be the same without Bob and little Tiny Tim.
For me, a good subplot is almost a strong narrative on its own. It must support the main plot, certainly. But a subplot must also be self-sustaining. Otherwise my characters come off feeling like cardboard.
Years ago there was a very popular movie titled The Gods Must Be Crazy. The film follows three distinct stories that all seem unconnected except for their location in Africa. Eventually, the three stories dovetail in an unexpected way, bringing all the unrelated characters together for the conclusion.
I like my stories to take this equitable approach to storytelling. I don’t think of my story in terms of plot and subplots. I think about what’s driving the character forward and what needs to happen next. I have never once thought that I needed to insert a minor character or subplot. When a character appears in my story, I consider it a major character until events prove otherwise.
When I feel that something isn’t working in my stories, I often discover that it’s because I’ve written too much about a character or storyline. That’s okay, though. It’s a lot easier to cut an overabundance of a big story than try to pad a thin one.
Each character and plot is important. Some may be de-emphasized, but none should exist only to serve another.
Simply put, there are no subplots — only great stories waiting to be told.