I'm looking for the literary expression that is used when the themes and plot of a subplot are the real plot of a narrative, which is counterpoised to another, more accessible story plot that is only a vehicle for the main storyline.

It sounds complicated, but I believe that there is a literary term for this.

An example of this would be an athlete trying to win a sporting event against an environment of prejudice, but where political events overshadow the individual's endeavors, and the story is primarily about the politics and the athlete is used as a narrative foil of the political circumstances.

There may not be an actual term for this, but if there is, I'd be happy to know.

  • These are plot reversals or big reveals. In the film The Sixth Sense, we revisit everything we just saw after we realize that we had it all wrong. More than a plot twist. Jun 27, 2022 at 18:15
  • There seem to be two things you could mean. One is where the story seems like it's going to be about the protagonist competing at athletics, but events conspire so he ends up with most of the things that happen to him being about politics; the other is where he continues to be focussed on his athletics but we catch some glimpses of the political story while he is doing it. Jun 27, 2022 at 18:29
  • Maybe like George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, which starts out seeming like a social satire/romance, but ends up with the most substantial subplot being related to the plight of the Jews in 19th Century England? Readers would have read the first few installments without realizing there was anything Jewish about it, and then gotten hooked so they couldn't stop reading after she had introduced the Jewish elements.
    – Peter Shor
    Jun 27, 2022 at 18:36
  • 3
    Could you give some examples of stories where this occurs?
    – mikado
    Jun 27, 2022 at 21:34
  • 2
    I haven't read Daniel Deronda, but it sounds very similar to the the idea I was thinking of. I asked the question because it is something I'm personally working on, so I can't think of an example at the moment. All stories have context; the idea I am working on on has the contextual plot virtually overwhelm the protagonist's story, and I wondered whether there was a literary term for my device. Think of it as a Bildungsroman where both the protagonist and the society of the protagonist are moving forwards to a realisation together. Thanks for all the comments.
    – RoDaSm
    Jun 28, 2022 at 15:30

1 Answer 1


This question may stem from a confusion between plot and subplot on the one hand and theme on the other. A work of fiction may have a main plot and one or more subplots. For example, in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, the love story of Lorenzo and Jessica is a subplot. Themes in the play include the conflict between self-interest and love, the nature of mercy and (especially for modern audiences) antisemitism.

In the example of "an athlete trying to win a sporting event against an environment of prejudice", the main plot would be the events experienced by that athlete as selected and arranged by the author. Both the main plot and the subplots, if any subplots are present, may be influenced by political events. Themes might be social prejudice, the struggle between the individual and society, fortitude in the face of adversity, etc. (Theme itself is distinct from "thesis", which refers to a sort of proposition for which the work argues. The thesis of a literary work is paraphrasable, whereas its theme might not be.)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.