This week’s video suggests the value of an “emotional subplot” to bring instant depth to any character.
Subplots are surprisingly misunderstood among writers, primarily because the best subplots are natural offshoots of the plot itself. They’re so integral to the plot that they’re basically inextricable from it. Let me just start today with a really basic definition of the subplot. In a nutshell, the subplot is a thematically related exploration of a minor part of the character’s personality. As such, subplots are vital for providing both contrast within the plot—for example, they allow us to give readers a “break” from the main plot—and for allowing us to introduce character depth via situations that would be off-limits in the main part of the plot.
We find perhaps the most obvious example of this in action-driven stories, since the contrast is particularly evident. For example, in C.S. Forester’s acclaimed Hornblower series, the plot is very obviously about the action—it’s about Captain Hornblower’s naval adventures during the Napoleonic Wars. Forester could easily have left his stories at that, and they probably would still have been popular. But he notched it up by introducing a minor subplot about Hornblower’s domestic life—his somewhat accidental marriage, his struggles to relate emotionally to his wife, and his desire to provide for his family.
I like to call this an “emotional subplot.” It’s not there to drive the plot forward so much as it is to introduce humanizing facets of the character. It makes the protagonist relatable and compelling in ways readers wouldn’t be able to access if the author focused totally on the main plot. Some stories, of course, are all about the emotional angle. But if you’re writing a plot-driven story, always take a minute to contemplate how you can bring considerable depth to your story by expending just a little effort on an emotional subplot.