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Author: Sydney Bauer

This lesson introduces the subplot in fiction.

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A subplot is a plot or story that is secondary but still directly related to the main plot of a narrative. They are meant to enhance the rise and fall of the main plot, and the development of symbols and themes. Sometimes the scenes in a subplot broaden the audience’s perspective about the main plot by giving new information about a character or event. Subplots can create situations that mirror the main plot, or situations that are the direct opposite of the main plot.




How to spot a subplot

  • Subplots can appear as a story told by a character within a story (the telling of a tale related to the characters or main plot)
    • Be careful! Characters can also tell unrelated tales, like those in The Arabian Nights. These unrelated tales might look like subplots, but are actually frame stories.
  • Subplots can appear as additional information about major and minor characters
    • a character’s back story
    • a character’s account of events
    • additional points of view or perspectives
  • Sometimes writers signal a subplot within the text (using phrases such as “And here is the Merchant’s account of the last year…” or “This is what so-and-so told”)
  • Sometimes writers deliberately create several overlapping subplots that blend and merge so that it is difficult to separate them from the main plot (which is most often the case in Stream of Consciousness Novels).


Let’s look at some examples!

Example #1: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1831)

  • Main Plot: Against the very laws of nature, Dr. Victor Frankenstein creates a monster (“the creature”) in his laboratory. Horrified by the events, Frankenstein falls ill and the creature disappears. Frankenstein must deal with the consequences of the creature’s actions.
    • Subplot: The creature returns and tells Dr. Frankenstein about what happened to him while he was in hiding. The creature learned to speak and behave from observing a family.
      • The subplot of the creature’s story provides additional information about the creature’s character: It helps readers see the creature as a complex being, instead of a ruthless animal.

Example #2: Sir Thomas Malory’s version of the Tales of King Arthur: Morte Darthur (Death of Arthur).

  • Main Plot: The legends almost always begin with Arthur’s birth and childhood, but the main plot focuses on Arthur's reign as king. Most of the work is made up of the individual adventures of the knights of King Arthur’s roundtable.
    • Subplot: The forbidden (and unconfirmed) romance between Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere.
      • This subplot is a counterpoint to the main plot: The main plot of the Arthur Legends (no matter which version you read) revolves around the duties and responsibilities of the knights of the roundtable. The knights must remain pure, and be loyal and subservient to their King and Queen. In the main plot, Sir Lancelot is referred to as the “most worshipful knight” and the “head of all Christian knights.” The extramarital romance that develops between Guinevere and Lancelot in the subplot shatters that image of honor and loyalty that Lancelot is thought to uphold.
        • It creates tension and conflict among the characters, showing that even the knights of the roundtable break their oaths.