As an author, you want to create compelling, interesting stories, right? No matter what genre you write in, one important aspect of a compelling story is the subplot.
What are subplots?
Subplots are simply secondary storylines, and all forms of story have them. Novels, TV shows, movies, and even video games have secondary stories within the main plot.
Remember that your story doesn’t exist in a vacuum: characters are people, and people have multiple things that need their time and attention. After all, we can’t realistically drop everything to save the kingdom from an evil warlock. We still have friendships, romances, families, and other things in our lives. We’ve got to save the kingdom while still interacting with other parts of our lives.
Why incorporate subplots?
In any story, you have a main plot. This is the central conflict your story revolves around. If you want to continue the thread from above, it would be saving the kingdom from an evil warlock.
To give your novel depth, intrigue, and a touch of realism, you can weave subplots into the story.
Subplots serve multiple purposes in your novel:
- They reinforce your story’s central themes and messages;
- They help readers learn more about the characters; and
- They introduce additional conflict.
Types of Subplots
Just like there are many ways to craft a plot, there are many ways to craft a subplot. They generally fall into four main categories.
- Mirror: A mirror subplot is when a secondary conflict mirrors the main conflict but doesn’t actually match it. Mirror subplots are a good way to teach the main character a valuable lesson they need to resolve their own problem.
- Contrast: A contrasting subplot is when a secondary character faces similar problems to the main character, but this secondary person makes different choices and experiences a very different outcome.
- Complications: This is a subplot that complicates the main story in a big way, often making the main character’s main task seemingly impossible.
- Romantic: Romantic subplots are self-explanatory: the main character has a love interest, and this somehow complicates the main storyline.
Subplots, of course, can overlap and cover a couple of these different categories. Few things are black and white in creative writing, subplots included!
Writing better subplots
Brainstorming subplots is one thing, but incorporating them into your novel is another.
- You want to ensure your subplots remain that: sub. If your subplot is overpowering your main storyline, then it’s time to rethink your story. If this happens, your subplot may actually be your main story.
- Give your subplots a narrative structure just like you would a main plot. Subplots are still stories, and you don’t want to slap one in for the heck of it. They need to follow a narrative framework on a smaller scale, which means they need a beginning, middle action, and a resolution.
- If your subplot has no impact on the final outcome of your story, you should probably cut it out during revisions. Your subplots support the main story and weave together to create layered conflict. A subplot with no bearing on the final story is probably just fluff.
- Don’t forget, characters should drive the story and action! Character-driven plots are engaging and full of tension.
- Use subplots for foreshadowing future events in your novel. Use them as an opportunity to plant both clues and red herrings to keep readers (and characters) on their toes.
Can you include multiple subplots?
You can absolutely include multiple subplots! In fact, I encourage it. You need them to create a layered story.
That being said…
Don’t use too many subplots. What that means is up to you and your individual story. What’s important is that your subplot(s) don’t overtake the main story.
I think a good rule of thumb is to have a main storyline, your protagonist’s inner conflict, and three or four subplots. Too many subplots creates confusion for your readers and can even cause problems for you as you revise.
As you draft, you can always add or remove a subplot, too.
What’s important is that you consider your subplot the same way you would your main story. Make sure each subplot has a beginning, middle action, and some kind of resolution. It doesn’t have to be resolved in three chapters, but the subplot should be somewhat resolved by the end of the story.
Need help with your subplots?
If you’re having trouble with subplots (or any part of your story), send me an email to learn more about how I can help you!
And if you like podcasts, Leah and I published a whole podcast episode about subplots back in Season 2 of The Writer’s Nook Podcast. Listen here or wherever you get your podcasts.