How to not let subplots run amok in fantasy fiction

When writing a fantasy story much focus is given to world building and character development. This focus can greatly enrich the story world… though there is also a pitfall in it for those of us who write the story.

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Characters come to life, landscapes take form, cultures are developed, costumes and customs are established. As you create a fantasy book or series you do not want to miss an opportunity to enhance the reader’s experience. This is a work of art. You want it to shine. All of this leads to an endless supply of subplots within the main story. It may be as simple as a secondary character who needs more personality in order to interact more realistically with the main characters in the story.

The wise writer files away an array of subplots. Histories of lands and biographical data on secondary and background characters, for example. But sometimes we get carried away by the ideas the subplots deliver and we let the story follow rabbit trails as we flesh out minor characters. Certainly there is validity in doing this when drafting fantasy novels, but it is imperative that we remember to focus the story on the main characters.

I was reminded of this recently while watching The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies for the first time. Peter Jackson allowed the story to follow so many minor characters that, even though the movie had great moments, it lost its punch. Characters wept over fallen comrades, and I could not weep with them because I did not feel an affinity for their loss. I did not “know” their comrades well enough to miss them. If the movie had stuck to following a couple characters a more coherent story would have resulted and greater emotional attachment could have been achieved. Instead it followed a slew of characters and tried to make all of them equally important.

A subplot is fantastic for enriching a fantasy tale. If we are following our main character and they encounter a minor character, it benefits the story if that minor character is given a history. But where we must be careful is in not immersing ourselves in that minor character. The story must pull back to the main character so that the conflicts continue to be resolved in a coherent manner. A great example of this is in Harry Potter because J.K. Rowling always kept the story on Harry and varied from him only rarely to enhance certain plot elements.

Stay true to the main character. File away the majority of your subplots. Who knows? Maybe someday you will dig into those files and write an altogether separate novel to cover the subplot.

Question: What examples of good or bad use of subplots in fiction stand out to you?


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Most obvious thing about me is how much I love reading and writing. This is truly my passion and has been for almost as long as I can remember. I know that sounds cliche, but it is true. Growing up in a conservative Christian home I learned to value God, intelligence, and life. I am always learning. I am a husband and a father of three young children. I love my family and my life. God is good and I attribute my success to His provision.

Great fantasy stories are a lot of fun. I write the stories that I want to read and am fortunate enough to have several published novels under my belt as well as more in the pipeline.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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4 thoughts on “How to not let subplots run amok in fantasy fiction

  1. I definitely agree. I don’t know how other people who have read the Hobbit felt about it, but it messes up the movie when you make up characters and events that were never written in the book, and then base the plot of the movie on those characters. Movies would definitely be more interesting if they stuck to the books they were based on. I don’t know why Peter Jackson didn’t stick closer to the book in his production of The Hobbit. He certainly did a better job on The Lord of the Rings. I did enjoy the Hobbit, but it definitely had some weird twists that the book did not have.

    • Agreed! There were still moments of greatness in this movie, but the clear story-arc that made The Lord of the Rings excellent was missing from this final film.

      The Hobbit as a book is a wonderful story. “Less is more” has become one of my favorite sayings because it applies to so many aspects of creativity and life. “Less” would have been “more” in this last The Hobbit installment.

    • A producer showed interest a few years ago, but I haven’t pursued it since. The process is very involved, requiring funding and sponsorship from major actors, producers, etc.

      Eventually I do plan to get into film with my writing, but I’ve not focused on that aspect of yet. I believe the future of movie-making is in crowd-funding. At some point down the road do not be surprised if a movie project is started for The Sword of the Dragon.

      We’ll see what the future holds.