Plot and Subplot: Several Strands, One Yarn

Image of yarn

Many Strands, One Yarn

We know that plot and subplot form the basis of all stories. What may be somewhat less obvious, however, is the precise relationship that exists between the two. How are these narrative elements knitted together, and what patterns do they form in stories? It may be useful to answer these questions in the following way: If plot is primarily concerned with the outer journey — the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal, the subplot(s) supports this journey by exploring its motivation, whether it concerns love, hate, generosity, revenge, or the like, and additionally tends to highlight theme, symbol, and the moral framework of the tale — the inner journey. In a finely crafted story, plot and subplot are woven together into a seamless whole.

The Role of Genre

Action-driven stories tend to spend more time on plot, although subplot is never ignored. Even frenetically paced films like Mission Impossible: The Ghost Protocol contain scenes which explore material centered on emotional content: Agent William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), for example, is wracked with guilt over having failed to protect Ethan Hunt’s (Tom Cruise) wife from being killed in Budapest. This frames many of his actions and his refusal to remain with the team at the film’s conclusion. We later learn that Hunt’s wife is very much alive and that Hunt has known this all along but has kept it secret in order to protect her. This sort of inner layering forms part of the story’s subplot.

The Piano

Art-cinema inflected films, by contrast, tend to emphasize subplot over plot. In The Piano, for example, the plot, involves Ada’s (Holly Hunter) attempt to get back her piano and thus regain her “voice” and self-expression. The new owner of the piano, George Baines (Harvey Keitel), who is obsessed with Ada, promises to returns the instrument to her in exchange for piano lessons and sex. This thread of lust, obsession, and Ada’s own awakening sexual passion, overshadows the plot, primarily because the action is diminutive in comparison to the spectacle found in Action/Adventure films. By contrast, it is the subplot that contains the large and tempestuous emotions that drive the story forward.

Retaining Plot Prominence

In some genres, such as the conventional Love Story, plot and subplot may even occasionally appear to merge, becoming difficult to pry apart. Here, the “love” thread, which typically provides part of the protagonist’s inner motivation/subplot in the Action/Adventure genres, now becomes the outer goal (plot), itself. This genre typically centers around the attempt of lovers to get/stay together despite mounting obstacles. Strengthening the outer obstacles may prevent the subplot from usurping the role of the plot.

In Summary

The normal function of the subplot(s) is to support, motivate, and highlight the inner concerns of the plot by exploring the relationships and emotions of the protagonist and other characters through one or several story strands. Occasionally, and depending on genre, subplots appear to usurp the plot.


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7 thoughts on “Plot and Subplot: Several Strands, One Yarn

  1. The Belly Dancer

    What a great blog you have! Thank you so much for sharing all this information. I am now following you via email that way I don’t have to miss a post again. Thank you so much again and have a lovely weekend.

  2. Russ Welsh

    I think I am definitely more concerned with subplot. Come to think of it, besides “This Time” (my ghost story short), I don’t think I have ever written anything that centers on one specific plot. Hopefully this isn’t a bad thing.

    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Hi Russ. Just remember, “several plots” still reside at the plot level, that is, they function as plots; subplots perform a slightly different function.

  3. Shea Moir

    I Kind of like the like the idea of the plot taking the backseat and letting the subplot drive.. Is that even possible without the Plot becoming the subplot and the subplot becoming the plot? I like the metaphor of “Many strands one yarn”. I was trying to think of clever ways to describe just that. Thanks, Stavros!
    Another cool post!! 🙂

      1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

        Not at all, Shea. These are relevant questions. It helps to remind yourself that plot is primarily concerned with outer action, while subplot sheds light on the inner world — the world of relationships and the emotions, intentions, and themes which define it.


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