Subplots, paraplots, and coplots
Posted August 10, 2014on:
Just so you know, I never took a class, or one of those seminars in Creative Writing that people go on about, so if there is a ‘definition’ of these terms out there, I don’t know what it is. In fact I think I just invented the last two. The difference between them is in the relationship they have to the main plot, if there is one.
Subplots are usually pretty small, in the grand scheme of things. In Stephen King’s Dead Zone there is a marvelous subplot about the hero John Smith teaching a young man to sidestep a learning disorder. He also uses his precognition to save the life of the young man and most of his graduating class by keeping them away from a building that he knows will burn to the ground. It’s a great section, one of my favorites, but if the whole thing had been cut or replaced with a different subplot, it probably wouldn’t have hurt anything. At best it’s a foreshadowing of larger and more public displays. A subplot can be either a comic device, two bumblers attempting to do what the two MCs do so easily, or a tragic device, a gentle romance that mirrors the disintegration of the MC’s marriage. A story might be diminished without it, but not derailed.
A paraplot is much more important. Where ‘sub’ implies a lower or lesser status, ‘para’ implies an equal footing between this plot and the main. Han and Leia’s romance is a subplot to The Empire Strikes Back, but Vader’s pursuit of them in order to use them to lure Luke into his trap is a paraplot. It could even be considered the main plot. Only the fact that the main story of the trilogy is about Luke and the Jedi elevates his training sequences to paraplot status. My novel A Warrior Made has three paraplots, as different groups of characters have separate adventures inspired by the same event, that nonetheless interconnect and come together to resolve the main plot.
Like a paraplot, a coplot is also on an equal footing to the main plot, but where two paraplots are usually strongly connected, coplots are not. They might even seem like random and implausible coincidences if not done correctly. The Madness Season is a good story, but the necessary coming together of the elements needed to resolve it is extremely implausible. Given the relative stasis of the situation everyone was in, you can get away with saying it would have happened eventually, but that’s not a great motivation. The characters are much more colorful and save the book for me. Once they do come together they form a single coherent plot that works pretty well.
A different form of coplot is in my novel St. Martin’s Moon, where the MC’s presence in the lunar colony sets several other characters in motion, but not coherent motion. Each has a different reaction, and does their own thing for their own reasons. They come together to resolve the major and minor plots without any of the agents knowing what they are doing, beyond accomplishing their own ends, none of which are related to the main plot. These are the only two examples of a coplot that I can think of, and I just thought of The Madness Season while I was writing this. (The current publishing business model doesn’t really work for coplotted books, as query synopses are much harder to write, so I don’t expect many of them to make it to the shelves.)
I hope if you can think of any novels that fit into that category you’ll mention it in the comments.