This is part of a series about storytelling techniques for epic fantasy. I’m drawing my examples from the 1990s sci-fi TV show Babylon 5. If you’ve never seen it, that shouldn’t affect the validity or usefulness of my storytelling tips. If you do want to see the show, you can probably find it on Netflix or the DVDs on eBay.
The plot of Babylon 5 was told over five television seasons and a few TV movies. Never mind the ‘90s hair and CGI that’s outdated by today’s standards. The story itself was a sprawling epic fantasy with a space-opera setting, a story that spanned thousands of years and dozens of characters. J. Michael Straczynski was the mastermind behind this dramatic tale of humans and aliens, ancient prophecies and futuristic empires, villains and heroes.
Plot is essential for any story, and most stories feature sub-plots or side threads that run along with the main plot. This is especially true of epics, as this format is defined by its length and complexity.
There are no hard and fast rules about how many sub-plots a story should have, how long each one lasts, etc. But in general, what I have found is that the best way to handle sub-plots is to: a) make sure they relate to the main plot in some way, and b) make sure they don’t detract from the main plot.
When you sit down to write a story, you should have at least some idea of what your main plot is going to be. Even if you’re a pantser, and you have to write two-thirds of the book to discover your main plot, that’s okay – when it’s all over, there’s still one main plot.
The main plot of Babylon 5 is war encroaching on peace. The very first episode begins with an assassination attempt and a surprise attack. Even as the series winds down in “Objects at Rest” – the last episode before the finale – there is conflict. War is the main plot of Babylon 5’s epic story.
The main plot should be introduced fairly early on. Even in an epic story, where things can be expected to take longer to develop, the main plot should be apparent within the first few scenes. You don’t have to begin with a bang the way Babylon 5 does, but if you’re a third of the way into your tale and are still in intro mode, some revising might be in order.
Most every story has a sub-plot or a semi-related side plot. Epic fantasy – because of the length and the conventions of the genre – is a great place to explore multiple plot threads. Babylon 5, being a five-book series, after a fashion (each season was like a complete book, with the episodes as chapters), was filled with sub-plots.
Each season (or “book”) had its own plot. Season 2 – called The Coming of Shadows – focused on the approach of war, with its rumors and threats and darkening mystery. And by season 5 – The Wheel of Fire – two wars had been fought and won, yet the struggle for peace and unity proved to be a war of a different sort. All of these individual plots fall under the series’ main plot of war.
And of course, within each season’s sub-plots were smaller plots: the Mars rebellion, Byron’s telepaths, the madness of the Centauri emperor Cartagia, Dr. Franklin’s struggle with addiction, and on and on.
The key here is that all of these sub-plots are related to and are influenced by the season (or book’s) main story, and the overall series story. It is also important to note that a sub-plot – even an important one – should never completely take over the story. If you’re writing and you discover that your sub-plot is becoming the main plot, there’s nothing wrong with that as part of the writing and discovering process. Just make sure that you eventually figure out what your main plot actually is – even if it turns out to be that storyline formerly known as the sub-plot.
A side thread, as I call it, is smaller and less important than a sub-plot, but it’s an element that adds richness and dimension to the fantasy world of a long epic. Babylon 5’s story is rich with side threads: Garibaldi and Lennier building the old-fashioned motorcycle, Sheridan and Delenn’s multiple dinner dates and adventures with eating flarn, Rebo and Zootie’s periodic visits to the station, and so many more.
The scene involving Sheridan’s less-than-perfect attempt to cook flarn for Delenn had nothing to do with the main plot of the episode, the season, or even the entire series. The Shadow War coming to a head – the main plot of season three Point of No Return – could have been told without Delenn politely choking down Sheridan’s cooking. But that little side thread added another layer to those two characters, and provided a moment of humor in a high-tension story.
Think of side threads as a form of world-building and character development. The little things are the foundations of life – in reality and in fantasy. You can help your readers (or viewers) buy into your world and your story by adding in those little side threads.
What are some of your favorite main plots, sub-plots, or side threads in stories?