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A Story, B Story, Part One: Why Use Subplots?
by Victoria Grossack
Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
April 3, 2014
Storytellers have been using this technique for millennia. Homer, for example, used multiple storylines in The Odyssey. He first follows the adventures of Telemachus, Odysseus' son, who is suffering because his father has been absent for so long. Only after several "books" does he go to Odysseus. In The Iliad, Homer treats us to the Trojan War from the perspectives of the Greeks, the Trojans, and even some of the gods.
Although the technique has been around for a while, it is not something that has met with universal approval. With respect to tragedy as performed in the theaters, Aristotle in his Poetics described three unities, the first being "The unity of action: a play should have one main action that it follows, with no or few subplots." Of course Aristotle was opining about drama, as opposed to, say, epic poetry, the type of storytelling in his time that most closely resembles the type of storytelling found in novels in ours. Partly because of Aristotle, critics and storytellers have debated the merits of additional storylines for thousands of years. Nevertheless, many storytellers use multiple storylines; this column covers some of the reasons why.
Not Enough Story. One reason, frankly, is there may not always be enough plot to keep the A Story interesting and credible for a 200-page novel or for 45 minutes (the actual non-commercial time of an "hour" of television in the United States) or for whatever strikes you as a reasonable length for your opus. If you're writing a romance -- let's consider Pride & Prejudice -- how many words, paragraphs and scenes can be devoted to Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy misunderstanding each other before the storytelling shifts from realistic to ridiculous? Therefore, in Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen sensibly includes the histories of other pairings: Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas, Mr. Wickham and Lydia Bennet, and Mr. Bingley and Jane Bennet.
Action Doesn't Happen in a Vacuum. Aristotle also maintained that drama should occur in a 24-hour period, with everything happening in the same place (and certainly not having to do much in the way of scene changes would be considered useful to those putting on a play). Although the "one day, one place" restrictions may be OK for a short story or a play, these conditions may be too limiting for a novel. If your protagonist is moving around in space and time, it is logical that other things will happen and interfere with the rest of the story.
Plot Thickeners. Related to the last two reasons, but building upon them: with the addition of more storylines, you increase your options in nearly every way. For example, you cannot have a triangle without putting three people in a relationship. This extra scope lends itself to all sorts of surprises and helps you add complexity to your novel.
Ensemble Cast. In some stories, it may not be possible to give all of the regular characters meaningful roles in the main plot; however, your audience will still want and expect to get updates on all the characters. This is especially true in television when you have contracts with multiple actors, but can also apply to series of novels.
Storylines That Go Well Together. You may need multiple storylines in order to do justice to a great event. For example, consider Herman Wouk's The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. These novels hop around the globe as they show how World War II began, was fought, and then ended. It would be impossible to have a single person involved in all the major events of World War II. Instead, Wouk starts with a particular naval officer, Victor Henry, then branches out to Henry's family, and spreads out to following the lovers and even the ex-lovers of the Henry family in order to show scenes such as Pearl Harbor, the fight for Warsaw, the wars in India, North Africa and Manila, and even the horrors of the concentration camps.
Perhaps your storylines are different aspects of a theme that you are exploring in your book. In Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, she showcases a pair of sisters who both have the same goal in life: to marry happily. However, they are very different characters and approach life from opposite directions. Elinor Dashwood believes in good sense and in restraining one's emotions, while Marianne thinks that you are only truly alive if you give your emotions free rein (this was being debated seriously when Austen wrote this book). For the most part, Austen ends up supporting "sense" over "sensibility" (in Austen's day, the word "sensible" meant "sensitive") but the argument is not clear-cut and her novel shows both sides. The two storylines are part of a greater whole.
Here are some additional examples of connected plots. You might show the upper class and lower class sides of a situation. You might base your storylines on the lives of two lovers before they meet. You might choose your storylines to reflect a tense situation in which you show a crime from the perspective of both the perpetrator and the police. You might even choose a pair of storylines that both involve the same character. For example, in Lawrence Block's Sins of the Fathers, the main character, Matthew Scudder, is attempting both to solve a crime and to come to terms with his alcoholism.
All the examples in the preceding paragraph are storylines that could be considered closely related in terms of plot, but even that is not always necessary. Some novels contain stories that take place one after the other, such as those in the books by James Michener and Edward Rutherford and some of those by Steven Saylor, which follow events in a particular setting over hundreds or even thousands of years.
Taking a break. If Story A is full of unremitting gloom and terror and is extremely serious, it can be helpful to have a comic break by switching to Story B. Changing the storyline can also be a means of increasing suspense. You may put your Story A characters into a dangerous situation and then skip to Story B, compelling your readers to go through many pages before they learn whether the characters in Story A survive.
In this article we've covered some of the many reasons that storytellers use multiple stories when creating novels or series. In the next column, Story A, Story B (Part Two) we'll cover some of the challenges that arise when you are working with multiple storylines.
You can read "Poetics" here: http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.html
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.