I read somewhere, and not to long ago either, that every story, no matter how short, should have a plot and a subplot. At first, I thought this might be difficult for some stories, especially the really short stories that have come to be called “flash fiction,” or sometimes, “short short stories.” After all, I thought, how do you work a subplot into a story that has less than a thousand words? Or less than five hundred? Certainly it can be done, and authors do it all the time. I have done it in a few of my unpublished stories, but everytime? I wondered about that.
My first thought was that a subplot could bog down a story unless it was long enough to be able to develop it thoroughly. In a short story, I thought, especially a really short one, you want the reader’s attention to be focused on the main character, not on a secondary situation which, because of the confining nature of the story, couldn’t be more than a few words, maybe a few hundred. That’s not much room to develop a real subplot. What’s a writer to do?
Then I got to listening to music. Mostly I listen to classical music, occasionally a few oldies from the ’50s or ’60s. (Beats the hell out of Tammy Wynette.) I found that composers latched onto this subplot device long ago. For example, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote Fantasia on ‘Greensleeves’ in 1912, a popular piece, frequently played around Christmas time, though the composer never intended it as a Christmas carol. The major part of this work is a somewhat free instrumental reworking of the popular English folksong, “Greensleeves,” a tune so old Shakespeare referred to it in his play The Merry Wives of Windsor. Vaughan William’s work is only about four and a half minutes long, not very long compared to many other orchestral works. But in the middle of the piece, he throws in a different tune, an English folksong called “Lovely Joan,” as what might be called–taking a cue from fiction–a “subtune.” Just like a subplot, the tune fits well with the main story. It enhances the main section and provides a lovely contrast.
Aram Khachaturian used the same philosophy in one of his short works, “Sabre Dance.” This popular classic is even shorter than Vaughan Williams’, coming in at about two minutes and forty-five seconds. It’s a rambunctious, turbulent work, filled with a lot of percussion instruments and, as you might expect, a heavy beat. But in the middle it settles down. It smooths out, the percussion drops out and the strings (violins, violas, etc.) take over. Khachaturian used an Armenian folk song here, in the same manner Vaughan Williams used his English folksong, and it, too, provides a welcome contrast to the heavy beat of the rest of the piece. (I couldn’t find the name of the folksong; anybody familiar with it?)
In short, the concept of an alternative to the main section of a story isn’t limited to writing fiction. It exists in music, and perhaps in other works as well (painting, architecture, dance?) It’s an acknowledgement by the composers of these works that a piece doesn’t always consist of just the main section. Side roads and deviations are important, they define the main character or the main theme and enhance our understanding of him/it. They help pull us into the piece, and give us a glimpse of him/it we’d never see without it. I suggest you try it on your next story.
(P.S. Google “Vaughan Williams” or “Khachaturian” and you’ll find at least one website where you can hear these works.)