To see the previous posts in this series on what makes a great story, check out these links:
Openings - Part 1
Openings - Part 2
Dialogue and Internal Thought

Politics play a large role in many of the stories I read. In fact, it’s hard to write or read any story, especially a fantasy story, without some political elements involved in the main narrative. Just look at Game of Thrones. The entire series, above all else is based upon various factions fighting for power through war, politics, marriage, etc. and just when you think you know who holds the power, you find out they don’t.

However, politics on the grand scale of Martin’s series doesn’t have to be duplicated in every story in order for it to be effective. When it comes right down to it, a good political subplot is dependent upon the characters themselves and the relationships they have with each other. The group affected can be as large as an empire or as small as a military squad. It can be as impersonal as a school board or as personal as a large family.

Here are a few quick things I believe is important for the political part of any story to work.

  1. Make it personal. I need to care about the point of views (POV) involved and if possible the non-POV characters as well. What are their motivations behind their behavior? How did they reach their decisions? What are they concerned about?
  2. Try to establish what’s at stake as soon as possible. Why should I care about this subplot? Who stands to gain and how? Who will be hurt and how? Giving the reader this information will help raise the level of tension in the story.
  3. Don’t let politics be the complete focus of your story. Like any other story element, a writer needs to find balance. Even if the entire story is centered around politics, like a senate election set in modern times, it is important to throw in a bit of action, suspense, romance, humor, etc. in order to make those political scenes stand out to the reader.

What do you think makes a good political subplot work? Any authors you feel handle this element better than others?


2 Responses so far.

  1. Dystopian works - 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451 etc. - which are time-honored classics, center on the upheaval caused by political factions gone too far. What makes these works stand the test of time are two-fold I think:
    1.) Like you said, we've got to care about how the characters in this world are impacted by what goes on around them, either rooting for them to rise up or pitying them
    2.)We fear we may face a similar fate, which is probably why we feel so connected to the characters in the story - we don't want to end up like them.

    Aside from these types of works, I've never really examined the politics involved in other works of literature... unless you consider societal customs and norms a type of politics.

  2. Good choices and I do consider societal customs and norms a type of politics.

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