How to Work a Subplot
What’s a subplot?
It’s a story (or stories) under the theme of your main plot. It can be used to create tension, explore character or introduce new elements.
Subplots are a necessity for serial fiction like comics. Ongoing comics have ensemble casts. You need to have your main cast members visible and active in your stories even if the central events don’t involve them at the moment.
Cooking under a battle to save the world from destruction might be the hero’s fiance planning for their upcoming wedding or (gasp!) her meeting another man in a dark alley.
There's a whole host of choices and opinions and approaches on how to advance a subplot.
The oldest and sturdiest is the ABC method. This is used on soap operas and in serialized TV shows and has many supporters in the comics field and with good reason.
You have your "A" plot or main plot. Dr Armageddon has returned to destroy the Legion of Do-Gooders. That takes up most of the action in your issue. Then there's your "B" plot. This is a subplot. It takes the level of Cellophane Lass, leader of the Legion of Do-Gooders has a secret. Then there's the "C" plot. This is a sub-subplot that takes only a few pages. A mysterious stranger is lurking outside of the Do-Gooder Building.
You then resolve plot "A" over the next few issues and, at the same time, move plot "B" forward in importance until it becomes plot "A". Cellophane Lass' secret is that she's an alien and an armada from her homeworld is heading Earthward with conquest in their hearts. Which side will Cellophane Lass choose? Our "C" plot advances to the "B" level as we discover that the mysterious stranger lurking around the DGB is none other than the Golden Age Captain Ohio. But why is he here? Then you intro a brand new "C" plot. A sinister figure is crossing the arctic tundra vowing vengeance against the LDG.
All right, Cellophane Lass sides with her pals and helps trounce the nasty invaders from her homeworld. This resolves your main plot. The Golden Age Captain Ohio tries to kill the current Captain Ohio then turns out to be an android controlled by H.E.R.M.I.T., sworn enemies of the LDG. The sinister figure crossing the arctic will turn out to be Sardonicus the Mad who’s looking for the frozen remains of The Inhibitor; a villain sent to Earth long ago by the Legion of Evil Doers from Earth 27-G. And all along, as you push one plot up and resolve it, you intro a new plot to replace it.
And there, in bare skeletal form, you have a year's continuity for a monthly comic. And with that formula you always have a story ending, a second story beginning and a third story in its middle.
This is a dynamite formula and can be played up or played down as you see fit.
Or you might use a more organic version of this with a few flourishes. You might have one long sub-plot mixed with a variety of sub-subplots that resolve quickly. This long form subplot can take as long as six issues or even a year to work itself to its conclusion.
The story of Tad Ryerstad in NIGHTWING is a good example of a long subplot. Tad was intro'ed in the first year of NIGHTWING as a minor subplot. His story has become a saga that won't see its fruition until close to issue #50. It's had its ups and downs but it was always going somewhere. The general direction of Tad Ryerstad and "Nite-Wing" was plotted out from beginning to end before his first appearance.
That’s a trap that you can fall into regarding subplots. Returning again and again to a subplot with no resolution can turn into a bore. Ben Grimm’s dilemma over whether or not he wanted to remain as the Thing or have Reed Richards discover a way to revert him to human form went on for decades. Decades.
When first introduced it was fresh and exciting. A hero in monstrous form who felt trapped between his desire to be accepted and his responsibility to the people who relied on him for his strength. Great stuff.
But when it went on and on and on and the big guy couldn’t make up his mind it grew tired.
Your subplots need a resolution. They are as important as your main story. And, for bringing readers back month after month, they are more important.
Also in the first year of NIGHTWING Dudley Soames was introduced. A complex nemesis who evolved (or de-volved) from a crooked cop to a major sickie badguy. Dick Grayson agonzied over joining the police force and finally joining. Blockbuster's health problems came to light but not resolved until the second year. And while all this was going on we had Dick and Clancy, Dick and Babs, Dick and Huntress etc. Also the troubles with the building Dick Grayson lives in. His choice of a crimefighting vehicle. Amygdala's mysterious arrival in Bludhaven and the continuing mystery of his employment. Gangsters came and gangsters went. Subplots boiling beneath subplots.
That's what helps keep a book vital. There's always something unresolved. Always something to bring the reader back. It also serves to make your stories denser and the world you're creating seem more three-dimensional. And as long as these continuing threads always lead to something satisfying or cathartic then you'll keep readers entertained.