Definition of Subplot

A literary technique, subplot is a secondary plot, or a strand of the main plot that runs parallel to it and supports it. It is usually found in plays, novels, short stories, television shows and movies. It is also known as a minor story or as “B” or “C” story. Its purpose is to add complexity and depth to the story, and thereby increases tension – a state of high interest and suspense about events in a story. Not only does it show various aspects of the characters, connecting the readers with them, but also it is a story within a story – a sort of a subplot.

Examples of Subplot from Literature

Example 1

William Shakespeare has incorporated subplots many times in his plays such as in, Romeo and Juliet, which is a love story of two leading title characters. While a subplot runs in the form of an old rivalry between their families (the Capulets and the Montagues), the increase in conflict of restrictions on young lovers to engage in romance further adds to the drama in the story. There are many scenes depicting young Capulets (Juliet’s friends and cousins) fighting with young Montagues (Including Romeo’s friends) and some scenes depicting Older Capulets and Montagues discussing hatred towards each other. Thus, this subplot plays a vital role, or else central romantic plot would have been ordinary rather than dramatic.

Example 2

In his popular novel, The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald has shown his main character Jay Gatsby becoming an overnight success despite having no family inheritance. It becomes clear that Gatsby has earned good fortune through bootlegging (through illegally preparation and selling of liquor). He, on the other hand, wastes his wealth on useless and extravagant parties to seek enjoyment with friends, including a beautiful married woman Daisy Buchanan, whose company he enjoys very much. However, when her husband Tom learns Gatsby is doing illegal activities, he shows his suspicion in an intense argument by accusing Gatsby, illegally selling alcohol through their drug stores. This subplot about prohibition adds intensity to the main plot.

Example 3

William Shakespeare in his popular play, King Lear, describes the main plot, as King Lear disowns Cordelia, his faithful and loyal daughter, and divides his entire kingdom between his unfaithful and treacherous daughters, Regan and Goneril. However, the subplot involves the Earl of Gloucester and his sons, Edmund, an illegitimate son and Edgar, a tricky man. Edgar is very cunning, who tricks his father into thinking about faithful Edgar intriguing against him, forcing Edgar to leave. This subplot points towards major events in the plot such as both fathers could not differentiate between their faithful and treacherous children. Nevertheless, the events get mixed up. and Regan and Goneril start falling for Edmund, when he becomes the Earl, and Edgar ties knot with Cordelia.

Example 4

Charles Dickens’ novel, The Great Expectations, is a huge web with a series of subplots. One of these subplots is Pip’s acquaintance with Herbert, as he cares more for his friend’s finances than his own. Pip even asks for money from Mrs. Havisham to help Herbert. Another subplot involves Pip’s plan to get Abel Magwitch / Provis out of the country with the help of Wemmick.

Example 5

J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel, The Lord of Rings, contains an excellent example of a subplot. The main plot concerns the quest of Frodo to go back to the ring, while the secondary plot moves around Legolas and Aragon’s adventures in their pursuit to protect settlements along with destroying Orc’s armies. Another subplot concerns the escape of Merry and Pippin from Orcs. By the end, these three subplots weave into the main storyline.

Function of Subplot

The function of subplot is to describe hidden impulses behind actions of the major characters. While this secondary strand has two effects on storyline, mostly it ties directly to the main plot and characters, putting an immediate effect on situations and characters. However, an alternative way is that subplots run parallel to the main story. This serves as a contrast to explain decisions of the leading characters. Usually, subplots create justifications for actions and unexpected actions taken by protagonists and antagonists. In addition, they add a back-story or reminiscing element to a main plot without directly affecting the pace of action. Subplots also provide contrast to the events of the main story in order to make it more meaningful and intricate.

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