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The Main Plot and the Sub-plot

I think now that I’ve cleared what plot actually is, I can talk about the two basic types of plot. A common mistake of writers, new and veteran, is that they get their main plot and sub-plot confused. How do I know this? How about we build a story together right here right now? Here’s our story:

A girl has to save the world from a maniac who wants to ‘correct the social order’ by making women the slaves they were meant to be and making men completely dominant, no exceptions.

(SN: That’s actually a pretty good premise)

So that means according to the post I did yesterday on Plot and Conflict, the Main Plot will be driven by the conflict between our heroine and this maniac who wants to make all women slaves. That means that every event that happens is going to be connect and have something to do with how this conflict will finally be resolved. This is what our story is about and what the summary on the back of the book will put out to the reader. But then, somewhere along the way this happens:

Girl meets this nice guy who wants to help her fight maniac and she’s really digging him on some level. I mean what’s there not to like, the guy not only has a nice personality and some business about himself, he’s hot! But romance isn’t the first thing on her agenda when fighting a maniac. Even if she had the time she’s not quite sure he’s into her. Oh, and did I mention he’s about six years older than her? Damn…

So if this story were a chic-lit or teen romance novel, there’s enough conflict there to drive a main plot and create an entirely different story. But it’s not our main plot. Our Main Plot is centered around the conflict that the heroine has to defeat the sexist maniac, but that doesn’t mean that this can’t be our Sub-plot.

The sub-plot is usually centered around another mini conflict in the story, but somehow comes out of the main conflict and main plot. The relationship with the guys is obviously complicated enough as it is, but add that she still has to defeat the evil maniac makes it more complicated. The thing about the sub-plot is that you don’t need it to write the story. We could easily toss this sub-plot out the window and the story would keep on going. And, the sub-plot doesn’t have to end with the conflict that started it being resolved like the main-plot does, not unless it’s critical to resolving the main conflict in which case, it’s part of the main plot and not really sub at all… We’ll get to that later.

But even though we could get rid of the sub-plot, sub-plots usually add this realistic feel to writing. In real life we have a million things going on in addition to what we’re really dealing with at the time. For instance, my real life main conflict or issue is getting off the ground as a writer. That’s my number one focus but I have to juggle school, family, and a plethora of other things along with it. So a few sub-plots make the characters more relatable.

Now this seems easy enough to comprehend, so why do writers have a problem with it? Okay, let’s all remember that great television show that we used to watch that had the perfect mix of action and adventure and sprinkles of romance here or there, but we don’t care about that because we want to see how the main character is going to defeat the bad guy. But let’s say three or four seasons in, less and less is the show concerned about the bad guys getting their asses kicked, but the MC’s problem with her love life. This is a case where the sub-plot ends up becoming the main plot and the main plot becomes the sub-plot.

As a result, this is the new summary for our story:

Girl doesn’t care about anything else in her life. Right now, all that matters is getting that nice hot guy to notice her or finding out if he likes her as much as he likes him, not to mention she has to prove that she’s mature enough to be in a relationship with him even though she’s six years younger than him. Oh yeah! And she still has to defeat the evil maniac….

See? The main plot here becomes something of an afterthought and I can’t count how many times I’ve met a writer in a forum who isn’t quite sure how to sum up their story because they want their subplot to be their main plot.

Writers love their sub-plots. I love mine. I love writing about my heroine’s messed up personal life, but that’s not what my story’s about. The writer’s main focus should be the main conflict and the main plot even if they have to neglect their sub-plot some to get that accomplished. Always keep both in place. So if you see yourself writing more about the sub-plot than you main plot, you’ve either lost focus or you need to go back over you original plan and see if you sub-plot wasn’t meant to be the main plot anyway. And if you’re not sure you’re getting off focus, ask yourself this: Can my main conflict be resolved without this sub-plot? If the answer is yes, get back on track. If the answer is no, it’s not a sub-plot you’re dealing with. You’re just writing an event that part of the main plot.

This can also help writers narrow down what to focus on in their queries, which is a whole other post that I'll get to later.

Also, for more information on this, check out my Stuck on the Romance of Harry Potter. It ties directly into this.

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