Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Sometimes, two plots are better than one. As much as brevity and (comparative) minimalism generally reveal the best form of a story, there are occasions where your central plot will benefit from being paired with a back-up narrative. These secondary narratives, generally less complex than the main narrative and focused on supporting characters, are often known as the ‘B plot’, and they may be the best way to improve your story.
The benefits of a B plot
As implied by the name, the B plot isn’t the main attraction of a story, but it can still have a lot to offer. It differs slightly from the wider definition of a ‘subplot’ by being meatier than that label can imply. A subplot is a set of events that occur within the wider narrative of your story, but a B plot is baked into its structure. A B plot is there to do a job, often altering how the reader experiences the main plot and the story as a whole. That’s why, once you start looking for them, you’ll find B plots in a lot of successful stories.
For a great example, look no further than King Lear. In Shakespeare’s play, Lear deals with the consequences of misunderstanding his children and their love, but he’s not the only one. The Earl of Gloucester has similar issues with his sons Edgar and Edmund, and these interweave with and echo the main plot.
If you’d prefer something more contemporary then switch on basically any half-hour comedy. In shows like Friends, Scrubs, Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, and Rick and Morty, it’s a general rule that some characters will be off exploring the A plot while whoever’s left is given a lesser B plot to round out the show.
Using a B plot is so ubiquitous because it has so many potential benefits for authors, and understanding those benefits is key to deciding whether a B plot is right for your story.
Adjusting story length
One of the biggest benefits of a B plot, and something that gives it a bad name with many authors, is that it allows you to bulk out your story. A second, minor plot allows you to write a longer piece without stretching out your main plot or adding unnecessary details and complications.
Many authors balk at the idea of deliberately extending the length of their story – after all, isn’t the best form of a story whatever shape it naturally takes? Well, yes and no.
Stretching your main plot by adding unnecessary details is a good way to ruin it, but pairing it with a minor plot doesn’t necessarily have that effect. The rest of this article will detail multiple benefits a B plot can offer, so it’s not like you’re just writing a longer story for the word count, but sometimes that’s a benefit in and of itself.
There are many occasions where a longer book benefits the reader. If you’re focusing on characters, for example, then sometimes it’s not enough just to communicate who they are; the reader wants to spend time in their company and allow their affection to percolate. Likewise, if you’re writing a story that you want to feel ‘epic’, multiple plotlines are basically a must.
Length can even play a part in marketing your book. Short stories are great, but longer prose has a larger potential audience. Novels like Fight Club and Enduring Love began with core ideas that only reached so many people because they were extended to a length that would sell.
There are various ways to address the needs of different stories, but sometimes length is in the mix, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Happily, it’s something you get at the same time as a host of other improvements.
Improving story shape and pacing
Sometimes, your main plot can be exactly as you want it and still have downsides. Maybe it takes a while for your protagonist to encounter real adversity, maybe things get a little too grim for a little too long, or maybe some characters are left without anything to do for long stretches.Multiple plotlines allow you to iron out issues with pacing and structure.Click To Tweet
Introducing a B plot gives you a chance to massage these areas, ensuring a better overall shape and pace. If some minor characters are going to have their own adventure, you have an excuse to introduce them earlier, maybe even throwing them into danger while you explore your protagonist’s status quo. They can add levity when the book gets too serious, pathos when it gets too light, and basically give you more options when it comes to guiding the reader’s experience.
Having a B story also allows you more freedom to move around in time and space. Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves includes multiple plotlines and often uses this fact to enhance the tension and horror of the story by switching characters just as one encounters peril.
This can be a great way to skip boring or perfunctory scenes, create cliffhangers, or even avoid time skips without making the reader too aware of your direct influence.
Maintaining characters and encouraging interest
Sometimes, you need to cut a character off from their allies. That’s fine, but since the main plot follows the protagonist, it can often mean leaving those characters with nothing to do or, worse, forgetting about them until later in the plot.
That’s a risky decision, because it means you’re not able to work on those characters. The reader may not care about them yet, or they may lose interest in them if they suddenly vanish or stop mattering (after all, you are kind of proving that they’re disposable).
In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien deliberately fractures his characters into smaller groups. It works because he manages to give each of them their own plotlines and goals, and he ensures their efforts matter in the final conflict. This is one of the reasons why Tolkien fans hold up different characters as their favorites – they got to spend time with them all and really grow to understand them.
Different readers will be attracted to different traits, so keep in mind that when you stop following what a certain character’s up to, you’ve probably just deprived some readers of their favorite. That’s allowed, of course – you’re the author – but it’s not always the best decision. This is the reason modern comedies rely on B plots in almost every episode; it keeps every character in play, even if they’re not the focus. The same logic can be applied if you’re writing characters over a series.
If you do give a character a B plot, make sure that it matters. This may mean that it contributes to the main plot’s climax, or it may mean really getting into that character’s head and making the reader invest in their struggle. Sometimes, it means structuring the B plot so it addresses the deeper issues of the book, but I’ll talk about that more in a moment.
William Goldman’s The Princess Bride includes a fantastic B plot for swordsman Inigo Montoya, in which he dreams of seeking revenge on his father’s killer. Goldman makes it clear to the reader that doing so would change Inigo’s life (to the point where it seems impossible the actual act could be as satisfying as promised) but also cleverly links the murderer to the story’s main antagonist. When Inigo does finally face his foe, it’s a moment that pays off the reader’s emotional investment and allows the main plot to enter its endgame.Tie supporting characters’ goals into the main story for explosive results.Click To Tweet
A B plot doesn’t have to climax at the exact same moment as the main plot, but make sure it’s not presented as an afterthought. To really work, it needs to have its own structure and investment, albeit not necessarily as much as the plot it’s supporting.
Adding parallels and exploring ideas
One of the greatest benefits of a B plot is that it allows you to explore the main plot in ways the main plot doesn’t. Returning to King Lear, Shakespeare uses Gloucester to critique and explore Lear’s position in ways the main protagonist hasn’t yet justified. The reader (or audience) is given more time to reflect on Gloucester’s flaws, reasoning, and pseudo-redemption than it makes sense to allow them with Lear.
Because of that, however, the reader is ‘ready’ for Lear, appreciating the key moments of his story with an understanding honed by Gloucester’s story. This technique can be used in a variety of ways – the B story can foreshadow the events of the main story, tweaking the reader’s understanding in whatever way you desire.
Often, the B story presents minor characters with a lower-stakes version of the protagonist’s dilemma. Their situation then becomes a testing ground for the climax of the story. If things go wrong, tension is raised, and you can even create the impression that perhaps the protagonist was doomed from the start. If things go right, you can encourage the reader to hope that things will work out, or underline the protagonist’s mistakes and flaws when they take a different route and fail.Use minor characters and subplots to comment on the larger story.Click To Tweet
This technique can actually give your main plot more momentum, because a lot of the examination and philosophizing that give it meaning can be handled elsewhere (and with other characters and events to keep it lively).
Getting the B plot right
Nail your B plot and you stand to write a deeper story with more energy, more fully realized characters, and a better application of pace and structure. It’s a way of taking some of the weight off your main plot and, consequently, allowing it to flourish.
For all these reasons, it’s worth taking a look at your story with a deliberate eye for where a B plot might fit. Are there minor characters achieving their goals alongside the protagonist who would be better utilized off on their own? Is there a task your protagonist currently accomplishes that could be outsourced? The answer might be ‘no’, but if it’s possible, a B plot may be what separates your current draft from the best form of your story.
What are your favourite fictional B plots? Let me know in the comments. Or, for more great advice, check out How Many Characters Should A Novel Have? and Here’s How To Write A Killer Climax That Leaves Readers Breathless.