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What is a subplot based on: conflict or tension?


I'm attempting to understand how subplots work, and one aspect has me confused. I'm trying to create a process by which I can create subplots. When I create the main plot, I start with conflict - two opposing forces. This doesn't seem to work with subplots.

Let me use the movie Thor as an example. The main plot is about Thor learning his lesson and regaining his power. There is a subplot about Thor's growing romance with Jane. This subplot has no conflict - the romance simply happens. There are no opposing forces.

Another example is Harry Potter. The main plot is about defeating Voldemort, but there are countless subplots. Subplots like Harry asking Cho out in the fifth novel are certainly filled with tension (from Harry's PoV), but I can't say they have conflict. There are no opposing forces.

Then again, there are many subplots which do have opposing forces, and seem to be based on that conflict rather than on tension. So what is a subplot based on: conflict or tension? Or is there a third option I have not considered?

Please note that this question is not about the definition of conflict. If you disagree with my definition of conflict, I welcome your opinions; but please make sure the answers are about what a subplot is based on.

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3 answers


I think you have to start with understanding the role of a subplot. Artistically, I think it is fair to say that a subplot exists to provide a counterpoint to the theme of the main plot. If a short story is a singer accompanying themselves on a guitar, a novel is an choral symphony with complex harmony and counterpoint, all of which serves to reinforce and support the main theme and the central plot of the story.

As I have noted before, LOTR is about temptation. The central plot deals with Frodo and his resisting and ultimately succumbing to the temptation to keep and to attempt to wield the ring rather than to destroy it. But if you look at the subplots, you find that they echo and provide counterpoint to this theme of temptation:

  • Bombadil is not tempted by the ring. This is the central mystery of Bombadil and helps to define the nature of the temptation that the ring presents.

  • Boromir succumbs to the temptation.

  • Sam, through love, is immune to the temptation, or at least is able to overcome it.

  • Gandalf and Galadriel are both aware enough of the temptation that they will not dare touch the ring.

  • Pippin succumbs to the temptation of the palantir.

  • Saruman also succumbs to temptation.

  • The ring is ultimately undone by its own temptation of Gollum, who becomes the final agent of its destruction.

Because these subplots exist to harmonize with or provide counterpoint to the main plot and its theme, they don't necessarily require a complete arc in themselves. Their role is to direct our attention toward the central theme, or to refine our appreciation of it, and they don't necessarily have to complete their arcs in order to do that.

Harry Potter is (as far as I can tell from the first three books, after which I lost interest) basically a maturation plot. For a young man, learning to court a young woman is a part of maturation, and doubtless it does something to support or counterpoint the learn-to-face-Voldemort plot that is the main plot of every volume. It is counterpoint, not point, and therefore does not need to come to a climax, does not need to face the moment of moral crisis, and therefore does not need conflict beyond the ordinary conflict that every young man faces when asking a pretty girl out for the first time.

So, a subplot is not inherently based on either conflict or tension (though it may introduce either one -- another function of a subplot being to introduce complications into the main plot -- it is based on the author's desire to provide a harmony or a counterpoint to the main theme of the novel in order to enhance and refine what the novel has to say about that theme.

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I wouldn't recommend that you attempt to "create" subplots (as you say), as that might result in parallel and unintegrated plotlines that serve no purpose in the main plot and that the readers might find distracting and uninteresting.

I believe that if your story is complex enough, subplots will appear and present themselves to you without any effort on your part. For example, in Harry Potter, the mere length of the narrative, spanning several years in school and all the characters and events that go with that, it would be extremely strange if the author had only told of Harry's fight against Voldemort. That would have been not only a boring book, but the life of an unrelatably limited protagonist, who had had no friends, no relationships to teachers, step-family, or fellow students, no interests or thoughts beyond overcoming his enemy. But as soon as you add all these to the person of Harry, all that goes on between them and him comes by itself and does not have to be "created".

So simply explore your concept. If there are subplots entailed in it, they will appear. If not, not. And don't worry about conflict or tension. These will be revealed to you as well.

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+1 Mark's answer, subplots often provide counterpoint. They can also provide examples of the alternative outcomes for the hero.

In the case of Thor and Jane (or Superman and Lois) The subplot adds stakes: Saving the world is not enough, now there is a personal stake as well.

I'm not familiar with the Thor/Jane plot so I will use Superman/Lois. To generalize that idea; the subplot may be used to introduce a plausible distraction, stumbling block or difficult complications for the hero: Superman wants a personal romantic relationship with Lois but cannot reveal his identity, and this becomes a terribly complicated mess between being meek and awkward Clark Kent (his disguise) working beside Lois (who treats Clark dismissively) and being Superman that Lois adores, but Superman cannot be with Lois without endangering her life.

Or the opposite: a subplot can provide an unexpected source of support for the hero. e.g. Lois, out of love for Superman, may risk her life to break his confinement by kryptonite, which is a turning point in the story so he can win the day.

That does not make sense without some subplot, it would be a deus ex machina if instead of Lois (with a reason to be there and a motivation to risk her life) it was some passing stranger, a walk-on in the story never seen again.

In many cases, romantic subplots are conflicts within a person; a conflict within themselves: e.g, the reader knows David has a choice. Doing his duty and saving the country means he will die; he will not survive the explosion if he triggers it. He will never see Elaine again, the love of his life. He will never see their child be born and he will miss all the joy he imagined of that child becoming an adult. All of these are in his head. Will he pull the trigger? Could I pull the trigger?

Without the subplot of David meeting, courting, and winning Elaine, getting married and pregnant, imagining his future life: This kind of scene becomes shallow. Just a mention of this at some point in the book isn't enough, the reader needs to have invested time with David imagining this arc of him and Elaine to know he is truly in love, and making the decision to chop this arc short is a heartbreaking struggle for him. It has to be a subplot (with its own challenges and problems to overcome). Otherwise his sacrifice doesn't feel meaningful.

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