Subplots are handy. They can explore themes. They can develop characters. But subplots that manage to accomplish more than one thing make stories more complex. Harry Potter‘s Quidditch shows us how a single subplot can serve the main plot in many different ways.
1. Slow the pace and increase the tension
Quidditch is sometimes used to create suspense. Right before Harry’s first Quidditch match in The Philosopher’s Stone, he discovers that Snape has been bitten by Fluffy. The scene ends with Harry thinking “ … but the expression on Snape’s face when Harry had seen his leg wasn’t easy to forget.” [PS, 135]. We’ve just discovered some crucial plot information here, but before anything’s done about it, we have a Quidditch match. This makes the reader want to keep reading, but doesn’t give too much away too quickly.
The subplot also expertly slows down the pace. Each Harry Potter book takes place over a period of a year. If every book included only Plot A material, everything would come at us so fast that the story would be over before we had a chance to make sense of anything. The subplot slows the pace to give us a chance to get comfortable and be absorbed by the text.
2. Allow your characters to learn the skills they need
Flying and Seeking are pretty convenient skills for Harry to have. In The Philosopher’s Stone he chases down a key so the trio can progress through the chambers beneath the trapdoor and get to the climax. He uses the same skills in The Goblet of Fire to complete the First Task, a win that changes the context of the story. Readers need to see Harry exhibit these skills prior to him needing them if they’re to believe he actually possesses them.
3. Create sympathy for your protagonist
Quidditch strengthens the emotional connection readers have with the books by creating sympathy for Harry. In The Prisoner of Azkaban it almost kills me when into Harry’s lap falls the remains of his annihilated Nimbus 2000. I was so happy when he got the Firebolt for Christmas, and I was furious when Hermione got it confiscated. As the next Quidditch match drew closer, I was right there with Harry desperately hoping he’d get the Firebolt back in time.
And in The Order of the Phoenix Harry’s been told that he must attend Quidditch trials and under no circumstances is he to miss them. And then what does he do? He goes and gets detention. My stomach drops every time I read that because I just know he’s going to be in trouble with Angelina. And then Harry gets a lifelong ban, making this dreadful year at Hogwarts almost unbearable. I don’t particularly like him in this book, but at least I can still sympathise with him.
4. Reveal plot information
The Harry Potter universe is one full of made-up stuff that the reader needs to know. Rather than just dumping all this info on the reader through draining exposition, J.K. Rowling incorporates the discovery of the information into the storyline, sometimes in Quidditch-related scenes.
In The Chamber of Secrets, the trio finds out that Malfoy is the new Slytherin Seeker and Hermione makes a comment about how he had to buy his way onto the team. Malfoy reacts by calling her a Mudblood, introducing the reader to the concept of blood status, which becomes this whole thing later on. Not only does blood status cause tremendous issues throughout The Deathly Hallows, it also helps Harry understand Voldemort. A simple subplot delivered incredibly important information.
5. Create opportunities for the plot to develop
In The Chamber of Secrets, Harry enters the castle after Quidditch practice and his muddy robes drip all over the floor. He gets into trouble with Filch, Nearly Headless Nick rescues him, and then Harry agrees to go to Nick’s Deathday Party. At this party, Harry is introduced to Moaning Myrtle, and his absence from the Halloween Feast creates suspicion when the school finds the writing on the wall outside Myrtle’s bathroom.
During his first Quidditch match, Harry’s arm is broken by a jinxed Bludger. Later in the hospital wing, he is visited by Dobby. While the conversation they had could have occurred anywhere, the empty hospital wing makes for an ideal situation. Harry discovers that it was Dobby that jinxed the Bludger and tried to stop him from going back to Hogwarts, and that the Chamber of Secrets has been opened before. This is also the part where Colin Creevey is brought in, petrified, and Harry hears Professor Dumbledore say that he thinks the Chamber may indeed have been opened.
In The Prisoner of Azkaban, Malfoy’s arm is injured by Buckbeak. He asks for the Gryffindor v Slytherin match to be postponed. In The Half-Blood Prince he gets someone to take his place, fuelling Harry’s suspicion that he’s up to something.
The Quidditch World Cup section of The Goblet of Fire is a huge well of information. Harry is introduced to Ludo Bagman, Barty Crouch, Winky the House Elf, Death Eaters, the Dark Mark and Viktor Krum, all of which play a part throughout the book. What happens with Winky also motivates Hermione to start SPEW, which leads her to the kitchens of Hogwarts and the discovery that Dobby and Winky are working there. Dobby is the one who brings Harry the Gillyweed that gets him through the Second Task.
During a Quidditch match in The Order of the Phoenix, Hagrid takes the opportunity to introduce Harry and Hermione to Grawp.
There’s also the Snitch in The Deathly Hallows, which keeps the Resurrection Stone all nicely wrapped up until Harry wants to use it.
6. Motivate your characters to do things that will be important later
Harry’s ability to cast a Patronus saves Sirius’s soul, Harry’s own soul and, because it saved Harry’s soul, Dudley’s soul. It also saves the Wizarding World both directly and indirectly.
Dementors are introduced at the beginning of The Prisoner of Azkaban, and Harry’s first Dementing experience involves him hearing Lily’s final vocalisation. Lupin repels the Dementor, but Harry isn’t too fussed about how at this point.
Later on, Harry’s swarmed by Dementors during a Quidditch match and falls off his broom, which is swept away and destroyed by the Whomping Willow. This makes Harry, determined to not let this happen again and risk not winning the Quidditch Cup, learn how to cast a Patronus Charm.
In a classic ‘that skill you learnt earlier is what’s going to complete the story arc’ move, Harry saves his and Sirius’s past selves from the Dementors, enabling them to go into the next book with their souls still in their mouths, and for Harry to save the world another hundred times.
Had Harry’s soul been munched by Dementors, the Wizarding World would have been screwed. Wormtail would still have gotten away and Voldemort would have hatched a plan to kidnap soulless Harry from wherever he may be (is there a ward in St Mungos for that or something?) and it’s climaxofTheGobletofFire-as-usual: he’s reborn. Except this time the Wizarding World has no Chosen One to get rid of him. I don’t know what soulless-Harry would be like, if he would be just an empty vessel or if he would be more like post-Hell Sam Winchester from Supernatural, but neither option helps the Wizarding World eliminate a threat whose only downfall is basically that Harry has a soul, which he only has because Quidditch made him learn how to cast a Patronus!
7. Set your main plot in motion, and keep it rolling
In The Philosopher’s Stone, Harry taunts Malfoy about being put on the Quidditch team rather than being expelled, and Malfoy challenges him to a duel at midnight. Hermione overhears their conversation, and she tries to stop Harry and Ron from leaving. The Fat Lady is gone when Hermione turns to go back into Gryffindor Tower, so she decides to go with them. Neville’s there too for whatever reason.
When they get to the trophy room, they realise Harry’s been set up; Malfoy isn’t there, but Filch is. Neville does something Neville and makes noise, so they run away and end up in the forbidden third-floor corridor. Hermione notices the trapdoor beneath the three-headed dog that everyone else is preoccupied with, and at some point after that Harry deduces that what lies beneath the trapdoor is the package that was stolen from Gringotts vault 713.
After Harry is put on the Quidditch team, Hermione lends him Quidditch Through the Ages, which is then confiscated by Snape (the same time Harry notices he’s limping). Before the first match, Harry wants the book back to take his mind off his nerves. He goes to find Snape and, when he finds him, comes to the conclusion that Snape is limping because he was bitten by the three-headed dog, and that he must have been the one to let the troll in on Halloween and wants the thing from vault 713.
During the first Quidditch match, Harry’s broom goes crazy. Hermione and Ron believe Snape is jinxing the broom. After Harry catches the snitch in his mouth and the match ends, they discuss Snape in front of Hagrid, who lets slip that the three-headed dog, Fluffy, is his, and that whatever is beneath the trapdoor has something to do with Nicolas Flamel.
This leads to Harry searching the Restricted Section of the library in the middle of the night, and then him discovering the Mirror of Erised.
There’s also a part where Harry jumps on his broom and follows Snape and Quirrell, overhearing a discussion where he learns that several teachers have set up protection to guard the Stone.
Basically, almost every little bit of information Harry learns that helps him save the day, he learns because of Quidditch.
As you can see, so many things can be accomplished with a single subplot. Great subplots aren’t just relevant to the story, they’re a crucial part of it. This is worth thinking about if you plan to introduce a subplot to an already-established plot, as exploring the backstory of a minor character might not be interesting enough to keep your readers engaged. Try to think of a way that a subplot can assist your plot or the telling of your story. When you’ve done that, think of a few more.
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