Now that I’m diving into revisions for Theo 3, I’ve been thinking a lot about subplots. I tend to have a lot of them in the Theodosia books. Actually, what I have in the Theodosia books aren’t so much subplots as they are plot threads, which may be a distinction only I get, but it’s important to me.
I think of subplots as plots that are totally separate from the protagonist—say a love story involving the best friend, or a sibling dealing with a bully at school.
A plot thread, on the other hand, is simply another area of the protagonist’s life that the main plot affects. So using Theo as an example, the main plot is her dealing with some horribly cursed artifact. However, her actions in dealing with that impact her relationship with her parents, the other curators, her brother, and her grandmother, ergo plot threads rather than subplots.
For a really specific example, in Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris, Theo’s dealings with the Arcane Order of the Black Sun is a plot thread because it is a consequence of Theo’s primary actions in dealing with the story problem. The governesses aren’t a subplot either because their appearance in her life is caused by Theo’s behavior as she tries to cope with the story problem. In fact, the only true subplot in that book is Will and the Grim Nipper, because that dynamic is entirely separate from Theo’s actions. However, like all subplots should, it does intersect the main plot at the end. This is probably a fairly fine distinction, but one that feels important to me.
In Werewolf Rising, the Luna and Ranger relationship is a subplot and truthfully, probably doesn’t intersect back with the main plot as solidly as it should. It was, however, an effective way to show the social constraints of living in a wolf pack, rather than just tell of the rules, so in that way I think it worked as an echo of the themes Luc was dealing with; would he submit to blind obedience like Luna, the most extreme example of what that total submission could cost an individual?
It seems to me that good subplots should foreshadow the protagonist’s struggle, act as an echo of the themes the protagonist is dealing with, set up a foil, or illustrate the road not taken.
In Theo 3 I have five (okay, five and a half) plot threads. However, because of the greater amount of character development in these books, one of the plot threads has almost turned into a subplot: Stilton and his relationship with the Black Sun. Initially, it was a plot thread because Theo came under their attention due to her curse-removing actions, but the more time we’ve spent with Stilton, the more he’s developed as a character in his own right, and now has his own arc which, again, echoes some of the themes Theo is dealing with, and intersects with the main plot at the end.
One of the reasons this distinction is important to me is because I don’t think all books need subplots—a second plot line separate from the protagonist’s—but I do think most books need plot threads. The story needs to show us how the main story problem affects the characters in all aspects of their lives. Because the truth is, if something happens in our life that is momentous enough to cause us to change, that change is going to reverberate throughout all facets of our lives. You know how it is. When something happens to you, an accident, you lose your job, you have a major fight with your best friend, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You still have to relate to your parents or your spouse or your children, you still have to show up at work, do you chores, get to school every day. And because we’re human, the emotional tension and ripples caused by the main problem are felt in the other areas of our lives. And I think by pulling this into the story, it gives a more richly textured plot AND character—those plot threads SHOW the character in the act of changing and dealing with the main problem.
It also helps with causality. Often the characters own actions are what make her situation worse (because really, aren’t we all our own worst enemy?) So by making sure the plot affects all areas of a character’s life, you give yourself lots of opportunity for the character to make things worse for herself.