Sometimes judging which is main plot and which is subplot is about like tossing a coin. Both seem about equal. Perhaps the most familiar example of that would be the contrasting adventures of Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Chewbacca, on the one hand, and of Luke and Yoda, on the other, in George Lucas' movie The Empire Strikes Back, the second segment of his Star Wars trilogy.
All the characters are initially established together, at the secret rebel base tunneled into the ice. Since the ending of the story will involve Luke's rash and unsuccessful attempt to rescue Han from Darth Vader, a similar situation is set up in the beginning, where Han rescues Luke from being frozen to death. By no coincidence, Han's peril from Vader also involves his being frozen, although in something called "carbonite," not ordinary ice. The opening crisis mirrors the ending.
Likewise, Luke's initial resourcefulness in killing a snow monster and in singlehandedly destroying a huge, walking tank mirrors his lone battle with Vader at the movie's end. Since in the middle Luke is shown failing, blundering, whining, and not doing too much exciting, the action-filled beginning and end prevent him from looking like an incompetent wimp.
The beginning provides contrast and context for the middle. It's also strongly tied to the ending, to help hold the middle together.
The middle needs all the tying it can get, because in the middle, two plots split apart to follow different protagonists. The narrative line cuts back and forth between them. The part of the story focused on Han & Co. is a fairly straight chase/adventure with a romance thrown in. Luke's plot, more subtle and thoughtful, involves his education by Yoda in the nature and use of the Force—a more interior plot with hardly any action at all and certainly no romance.
I've found it interesting which among my friends prefers the Han plot and which the Luke plot, in this movie. Whichever you like better, notice the differences in subject, pacing, and tone in the divergent sections. Pains were taken to balance the comparatively less dramatic account of Luke's education with the lasers-blasting escaping and hiding and capture involved with Han & Co. Each plot is the richer and stronger for being contrasted with the other.
And notice how connections were built in. Although Han & Co. are completely occupied with their own problems, Luke becomes aware of them through a vision. That awareness and feeling of connectedness is what prompts Luke to leave although his training hasn't been completed. So Luke's awareness is a bridge between the two plot lines. Another is the fact that Han & Co. are captured by Darth Vader primarily as bait, to bring the real tar-get—Luke—into Vader's reach.
But there are even more obvious connections—events repeated in slightly different form in each plot line. For instance, both plots involve the sudden and unexpected appearance of Darth Vader. For Luke, Vader appears as a malignant vision of possibility and identification (the illusory Vader has Luke's face), laying the groundwork both for the later duel and for the revelation that Vader is Luke's father; for Han & Co., Vader appears as an even more malignant reality. Both plots involve journeys. Han & Co.'s journey is primarily across space, whereas Luke's is mainly one of interior growth and insight—to and through the dark spaces in his own soul, moving from self-doubt to confidence (maybe even overconfidence). Both protagonists meet old friends: Han encounters Lando, and Luke finds he's still under the not-quite-ghostly oversight of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the dead (?) Jedi master. Both plots involve a cave where things aren't quite what they seem. Han parks his souped-up space jalopy somewhere in the interior of a mammoth space worm which, open-mouthed, fills the cave—the cave is a monster in literal fact. In Luke's cave, he finds the dreadful shadows of his own interior made manifest: his own fear and hatred take form as the figure of Vader, the threatening monster.
In each case, what in the Han plot is external, a physical reality is, in the Luke plot, internal—a realization or a vision. Internal and external balance, connect.
Then, after this middle section, the plots converge again in Luke's attempt to rescue Han & Co. and his first face-to-face confrontation with Vader. Luke joins the Han plot.
Together, apart, together. But even during the separation, many connections and echoes keep the two plots strongly interconnected and related. And suspense is created as the narrative line shifts from the one to the other, typically at cliff-hangers in the Han plot, so we're kept waiting to find out how things are going back in the asteroid belt or in the Cloud City.
This is a story that could easily have fragmented; but it's held together by strong and effective narrative rivets so that the whole works as one single connected action.
Even though I assume most of you aren't planning to write space-opera melodrama, the structure of this story serves as a valuable demonstration of the basic techniques of handling parallel and equal plot lines. Reviewing it on videotape, ifyou have a VCR, can reveal still other connective devices, echoes, mirrors, and pacing techniques you'll find useful no matter what kind of fiction you're interested in.
Though there are all kinds of fiction there's only one craft. What works for one story will likely work for another, and all good works of craft repay thoughtful study.
If you're contemplating a divided plot structure, spend this after-beginning section strongly establishing your characters and their relationships, and creating scenes and events you can echo later on, to be a solid basis for the coming split.
Because after this, things are going to get really interesting. Injust a few paragraphs or pages, you'll be looking toward your first major crisis, your first Big Scene, where the plot is really going to thicken and knot and spit sparks in all directions.
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