What use are subplots? You have a story to tell, and any good novel is supposed to stay laser-focused on what really matters, isn’t it?
Naturally, yes, it is – but that doesn’t mean that subplots are complete detours from the main event, or lazy distractions designed solely to pad out your word count.
Instead, subplots bring realism to your narrative by existing alongside the primary story. That’s because major events in real life rarely progress in isolation. When something big happens, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum – day to day reality frequently throws interruptions, unexpected delays, and sucker punches at you on a constant basis.
So something feels ‘off’ or overly convenient when your narrative follows a line as straight as Legolas’s arrows, and readers can easily pick up on this – usually by complaining that the story feels underdeveloped or too simplistic.
Think of subplots as strands of story that support or drive the main plot. As a writer you can use subplots to:
- Control the pace of the story
- Provide opportunities for your main characters to grow (or even become corrupt)
- Reveal additional information to your characters or to the reader
- Change the ‘mood’ of a portion of the story (an action novel, for example, might relax a little when sliding into a comedic subplot)
- Patch potential plot holes in your main storyline
Doesn’t that sound great?
To begin, remember that every character presents their own potential for an individual plot. This means you need to know them well – so start by creating backgrounds and qualities for three-dimensional characters that will populate and propel your story.
The individual dilemma that each of these characters faces, and the potential resolutions for such, is equally important to know. What makes a character’s story a subplot rather than a main plot is the time you dedicate to revealing and resolving their dilemma. If it’s a major character, they get more story time; for a minor character, their story will be a subplot.
Here are a few methods you can use to work subplots into your novel:
Diversion and Convergence
This is a subplot that springs to life parallel to the main plot, before converging at a later point.
Start the story with your main plot and characters, and introduce your protagonist. Only after you have established your main plot and readers know what the driving conflict is do you then begin the second plot. For the rest of the story, either alternate between them or quickly resolve the subplot and have its resolution cause ripples in the primary conflict.
This is the standard kind of subplot, and usually they feel connected to the main story as soon as they appear. This is down to the fact that these subplots involve characters that have already been introduced and established as important, but they’re breaking away for a short time to complete their own smaller arc. Because of general storytelling conventions, the reader automatically knows to expect that this minor storyline will eventually come back around and converge with the main one.
You can make the converging subplot any size. If your subplot is minor to the overall message or meaning you want to convey to your readers, simply pull back a little and give it fewer chapters, spaced further apart, relative to your main plot. If it’s of heavier importance, it could feature more frequently, even driving the character(s) involved to step away from the central path for a while.
For the revelatory subplot, apparently disparate storylines may commence at the same time, before one takes precedence over the others as they gradually come together.
They may come together through a location, a specific person, an event, or anything else you choose. Just make sure it’s something that the plot lines each have in common – don’t force them to join in an unnatural way, or your efforts will feel artificial and unbelievable.
Here’s a simple idea to demonstrate the concept:
Plot A – It’s a school trip to a national park. The kids and teachers arrive and get off the bus with their bags.
Plot B – A man drives to a bar for a drink. He is upset and angry.
Plot A – The kids are excited, the teacher and ranger explain what they’ll be seeing today.
Plot B – The man downs five straight bourbons in a row. His mood has not improved.
Plot A – The kids walk in pairs down a path, adults leading the way.
Plot B – The man gets into the driver’s seat of his car, fumbling with his keys.
Plot A – One kid sees something interesting over the road. He strays away from the group.
Plot B – The man takes a shortcut on the park’s service road. It’s dusty and visibility is bad.
So far, either storyline here could be the subplot or main. As the writer, you can choose which character is most important to you, and cement their portion of the story as the main plot – offering it the lion’s share of attention (and continued evolution) while the others progressively fall back as they begin to reveal and resolve their own path.
It’s only when things really take off that it becomes fully evident to the reader which thread of the story is the dominant one.
Subplots don’t have to be constantly maintained – or juggled, if you will – alongside the main plot until they’re resolved. Readers often enjoy the element of surprise, so if you introduce a subplot early, you might just leave it alone until you resolve it near the end.
By the end of your novel, the smaller dilemma you raised earlier will be a nugget nestling at the back of your readers’ minds. When you close the loop that’s been open for so long, in a way that either impacts your climax or strengthens your ending, it can make for very satisfying circumstances in which to lower the curtain.
Because of this, many authors keep a subplot aside to conclude after the main plot. This gives readers time to savor the fact that order has been restored following the resolution, offering up an extra, unexpected digestif.
This method is pretty easy to execute, as you aren’t forced to perform much of a balancing act throughout your manuscript. You’ll want to get some foreshadowing or quick callbacks in the middle of the story if you can, but it’s more important to make sure that in your early dealings with the subplot, you bring it as close to resolution as possible before you leave it behind. This is to avoid having to perform a rushed closure to the proceedings (leaving a sour taste at the end of your novel) or dragging things out too long in the finish and killing your closing momentum.
Making It All Work
Keep in mind that subplots are connective tissue. A subplot that doesn’t have any bearing on the trajectory of your main plot should be cut out or reworked. Resolution is equally important – when your book closes, there should be no loose ends flapping about.
It can be tempting to offer characters their own subplot purely to develop their personalities – for example, joining a secondary character for a while to go through the emotional roundabout of hope and upset during an unsuccessful job search – but remember what we said at the beginning of this article: subplots aren’t supposed to be complete detours from the main event.
What happens there may indeed build and reinforce character, but it needs to affect the primary story in some way. Perhaps the job interview didn’t go well because of the actions of your central protagonist. Well, now the heat is still on; this is definitely going to affect the ongoing relationship between your embattled protagonist and their upset friend!
How Many Subplots Do You Need?
There’s no strict rule about the number of subplots that will work for any story. However, too many may be confusing – both for you and your reader. Consider the length of the story you want to tell. Epic fantasy novels can support a large cast, with their supporting subplots, because they take the time and the word count to do so. With more pages, you have more space for characters and therefore more subplots to use. Most novels of typical length contain a main plot and up to three subplots.
But no matter what the average may be, you’re entirely free to tell the stories you want to tell – just be prepared for some daunting work if you’re going all out on a sprawling epic.
A Final Thought
Successful authors understand that much of a novel’s accomplishment depends on the delicate balance of plot and subplots. So if your story seems too flat following a read of your first draft, the cure may just appear through the addition of a couple of subplots – adding the extra complexity, conflict, and tension that readers want.
What’s your preferred way to work subplots into your story? Can you think of examples of these techniques in books you’ve read recently, or additional methods that have caught your eye? Share them in the comments below!