Guide to Literary Terms

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What is subplot?

Subplot is a narrative work's secondary, less central plot.


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Last Updated May 26, 2023.

A subplot, or underplot, is a subordinate or secondary plot within a literary work. A subplot may complement, contrast, or be unrelated to the main plot, and involves characters who are less crucial to the story's main plot. Writers can use subplots to add complexity to a literary work, flesh out minor characters, and to further develop the overarching theme. 


The word subplot first appeared in literary contexts in 1812, formed by combining the Latin word sub ("under, below") and the English word plot. Plot derives from Old English, meaning "a plot of land." It may be related to the Old French word complot, which means "secret plan."


In Margaret Atwood's novel The Edible Woman, the main plot concerns the protagonist Marian and her troubled relationships with her boyfriend and with food. However, the novel also includes a subplot in which her roommate, Ainsley, attempts to seduce a man so that she can become pregnant. 


see: plot

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