Must a subplot affect the main plot?

by Andy


I have a question. I'm writing on an epic fantasy novel. This novel has four main characters, who also double as both POV characters and protagonists of their respective story arcs. (In fact, with the two major villains, the MC list grows to six, I believe.)

Although each of the four MCs has their own, individual (sub)plots that more or less strongly touch the main plot, there is one of the four MCs, who's the definitive "chief" main character, the absolute primary character: Heck, the book's title is even named after that particular MC. Let's just call him "Alpha", for reasons of clarity.

The other 3 MCs are far less important than Alpha: They take up much less place "in front of the camera" (although they still are very strong and extremely important to the book and have long story arcs, all of which we see in the book).

However, the least important of those 3 "lesser" main characters (let's call him "Zeta") has a very intriguing subplot.

The problem is that, although Zeta's subplot is extremely important for setting up and expressing one of THE main themes of the whole epic, it is, plot-wise, for the most part only tangentially linked to the Alpha's plot, which happens to be also main plot of the book.

In fact, Zeta's subplot and the book's main plot only connect briefly several chapters into the book and longer for the final 4-5 chapters.

Basically, Zeta's subplot is birthed (and feeded) by the main plot; but at no point does Zeta's plot affect the main plot, except briefly in one of the final 4-5 chapters. When the main plot ends, so does Zeta's subplot, since that subplot's engine was the main plot.

That's no problem: It IS a subplot, after all.

But I read everywhere I look for writing advice that a subplot MUST affect a main plot: That is, it should several times touch the main plot, should remain linked to the main plot, etc.

If the story works otherwise, is it *really* necessary to take a subplot that works in itself and is also not only a beautiful story in its own right, but is also a very good expression of one of the chief themes of the tale, and contrive some way how the main lot could be dramatically affected by it? Even though it feels totally wrong to me? Especially since the organic flow of both main and subplot don't suggest a
way to do so without it feeling contrived?

To be clear: The main plot *does* affect the subplot: It is almost the subplot's engine, especially as the subplot's resolution is a direct result of the main plot: Zeta's subplot is even more dependent on Alpha's main plot than Aragorn's subplot was dependent on Frodo's main plot. the subplot.

But by the same token, the subplot doesn't really affect the main plot, except at one short episode somewhere in the final 5 chapters. And even that could be changed with a little work.

So I wonder: Should I contrive a way for Zeta's subplot to affect Alpha's main plot directly?

Or would it be better to go with my instincts and not look for some way Zeta's subplot can affect the main plot, since the overall story simply doesn't lend itself for it without heavy re-writing?

And: Generally, would you say that a subplot MUST directly affect the main plot in some way?

Answer: I think you have nothing to worry about.

One of the main uses of subplots is to enrich the thematic argument by providing incidents that offer different perspectives on the values, principles, and approaches embodied by various characters in the story world. By providing evidence for and against these principles and their counterpoints subplots create a richer puzzle for the reader, who must weigh up the evidence and reach a conclusion as to which principles are truly good or advantageous.

Shakespeare did this all the time, and so have many writers since. For example, in King Lear, Lear's blindness regarding which of his daughters was most sincere in her affection is echoed by Gloucester's inability to perceive his illegitimate son as a threat. By offering additional evidence regarding the failure to see one's children accurately, the subplot enriches the thematic argument of the main plot.

What connects a subplot to the main plot may be as simple as having some of the same characters involved in both or (even simpler) having characters from both plots interact at some point. This establishes that they are all part of the same story world -- the "storymind" that is attempting to resolve the conflicting principles in order to obtain wisdom.

Of course, there is a certain delight that the reader experiences each time a subplot affects the main plot. We like seeing how events are connected because our mind likes to fit things into a coherent pattern. It makes us feel like we understand life.

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A really belated Thanks
by: Andy

Hello Glen,

Many Thanks for your answer. And I'm sorry that I only now discover it.

But yes, we usually enjoy subplots that link to the main plot. But I am glad that the "all subplots absolutely HAVE to affect the main plot directly" formula isn't an absolute "must have" ingrement for creating a good story. And now I finally don't have to second guess myself in this regard anymore...

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