Plot Threads versus Sub-Plots

Like many of my blog posts, this one comes from my Twitter feed (@stephengparks)

A question was asked about whether sub-plots were distracting, and it became obvious that we weren’t all using the same definitions of sub-plot.

Some stories, including one that I’m working on, have many threads of the same plot. This is different from sub-plots and I want to demonstrate with examples.

In my example, a team gets scattered and must work individually to re-unite. This is a multi-thread story, it’s not a sub-plot.

The Lord of the Rings includes a multi-thread story. The fellowship falls apart, gets scattered in an attack. But each member keeps doing what they can to ensure the outcome, each trusting that the others are doing the same.

For examples of sub-plots I would often picture a sitcom.

Let’s use an imaginary episode of Friends as an example. The main plot is that everyone is afraid of Ross’ pet monkey. it keeps terrorising them but only when Ross isn’t looking, so he doesn’t believe them until it turns on him too.

The sub-plot is that Phoebe’s twin sister is impersonating her and doing bad things in her name.

The two stories aren’t related (Aaron Sorkin refers to these as A Plot, B Plot and maybe even C Plot, each lower plot getting less screen time).

A well-written sub-plot can impact the main plot.

Again from TV, I’m thinking of Castle. In that show, there would often be a sub-plot involving his family. In some well-written episodes something that happens in the sub-plot triggers a realisation about the main plot, leading to the resolution (solving the crime of the week).

Often the only thing that plots and sub-plots have in common is that the resolve themselves in the same timeframe. But handled well, a sub-plot can inform the main plot, emphasising themes or revealing insights useful to the protagonist.