Adding Subplots to a Novel

Adding subplots to a novel is all about taking the main plot you constructed earlier and adding dimension and complexity to it.

The good news is that you have already done most of the hard work. After reading and absorbing the articles in the plotting section, you will be perfectly capable of writing a watertight central plot. Adding subplots uses exactly the same skills and knowledge - only on a much smaller scale.

This article looks at three important areas...

  • First, I define what a subplot is, precisely.
  • Second, I tell you why they are important (in case you were thinking of leaving them out!)
  • Third, I show you precisely how to handle them during the planning part of the novel writing process. (Because, trust me, it's easy to get hopelessly lost.)

What Are Subplots?

Let's start by stating the obvious: a subplot is precisely the same thing as a novel's central plot, only it is much smaller in scale. (And when I say it is the "same thing," I mean that you use the same 10-Step Plotting System to build it.)

In some stories, telling the main plot apart from any secondary plots isn't always easy - they can seem equally important.

Beware, though, of any secondary story lines overwhelming the main plot. They are there to enhance and strengthen the main story, not to compete with it.

The main plot should always begin and end the novel, and any minor plots should happen within these "bookends".

A subplot can be told from the viewpoint of the story's central character (the one the main plot is "about"), or it can be told from the point of view of one of the lesser characters.

For example, if you are writing a crime novel...

  • The main plot is about a plan to rob a casino. It is largely seen through the eyes of the novel's hero - the leader of the criminal gang.
  • If the hero is also trying to keep his wife from walking out on him, the scenes in which he tries to convince her that this will be his last job before they retire to Italy together represent a subplot.
  • If the main plot is partly seen through the eyes of the hero's accomplice, these scenes represent another secondary plot.

Incidentally, you might think that this last one is actually a part of the main plot - just seen through different eyes - but it isn't.

The definition of a plot, remember, is that a character pursues a goal, encounters conflict and reaches a resolution...

  • The hero's goal in the main plot is to get his hands on the casino's money, pure and simple.
  • But the accomplice's goal is revenge - the casino manager was responsible for the death of his best friend.

The two plots might have the same event in common - the robbery - but each character is coming at it from a very different perspective.

More On Subplots and Point of View

Every viewpoint character that you use in your novel (beyond the standard "one") is effectively adding another subplot to the story.

If you write a love story from just one point of view, you have one plot: the story of the relationship between John and Sarah seen through, say, John's eyes.

If you write the story from the viewpoints of both characters, you have two plots (either equally-sized main plots, or a main plot and a subplot - depending on whether the novel is about both characters equally, or whether one character is more important than another).

Both plots will revolve around the same core event (the relationship), but each half of the couple will see it in a slightly different way. In particular, they will have different goals and face different obstacles.

Introduce a third point of view into this multi-viewpoint story - Sarah's best friend, say - even for just a couple of chapters, and you have now added two subplots to the story. But please note...

  • Sarah's best friend should have her own goal to pursue - to stop Sarah from marrying that good-for-nothing John, perhaps.
  • If she has no goal, one which will have an effect on the main plot, there is no subplot, and she is not important enough to be a viewpoint character. (But the reverse is not true: just because she does have a goal which affects the main plot, you don't have to make her a viewpoint character. Her role in the novel could easily be seen through John's and/or Sarah's eyes.)

An Imperfect Analogy

Think of a novel like a length of rope. At one end is the beginning and at the other the ending.

The rope itself is actually made up of several mini-ropes braided together - these represent the main plot and the subplots. The rope as a whole represents the sum total of all plot lines in the novel.

(It isn't a perfect analogy because the strands in a rope are of equal thickness and length, whereas a main plot is fatter and longer than the lesser plots. But you get the idea.)

The important thing is this: although the strands are all interweaved, they actually remain separate.

In other words, it should always be possible to remove an individual story line from a novel without the story as a whole collapsing. It might weaken it, just as removing a strand from a rope would cause it to lose strength, but the story should still make sense.

Why Are Subplots Important?

First, and most obviously, secondary plot lines are useful in turning what might otherwise be a very slender novel into something more substantial.

Short stories usually consist of one plot, and a very simple one at that. Turn this simple plot into a much lengthier one and you will have something recognizable as a novel on your hands.

But for a truly complex story - which most novels are - you need these multiple strands running through it.

But beyond merely bumping up the word-count and adding complexity to the story, there are other, stronger advantages to adding subsidiary plot lines to a novel...

For one thing, they help with the characterization - at least, the subplots told from the principal character's viewpoint do.

If the crime novel I talked about earlier dealt only with the casino robbery, we would only get to see the leading character when he was "at work". By including the romantic story about persuading his wife not to leave him, we get to see a very different side to his character as he tackles a very different problem.

Minor story lines can help with the portrayal of theme, too.

Let's say that the crime novel's theme is "being true to yourself". The hero might believe that he wants to rob the casino so that he and his wife can retire to Italy in luxury, but what he comes to discover as the novel progresses is that he is addicted to the buzz of his job and couldn't give it up if he tried.

That is the main plot dealt with. But having other plots (or other strands in the rope) allows the writer to explore this theme in more depth and from slightly different angles...

So in the romantic subplot, the hero further realizes that his wife doesn't want him to leave the robbery business any more than he wants to quit it.

They would be bored in Italy inside a month, and they both know it. They just haven't admitted it until now.

And in the accomplice's story, he might have thought he blamed the casino manager for the death of his best friend, but the truth is that he himself is the one to blame. Revenge seemed a noble motive, but the truth is that he is doing this for the money, not for his dead friend.

With only one plot in a novel, it would be difficult to explore your theme from several different angles.

Here is another advantage of subplots...

They keep the readers reading. However well you construct a plot, there will always be slower parts punctuating the exciting parts.

Now, slow parts in a story are good to an extent, in that they help to regulate the pace. But if a slow part threatens to become plain "dull", you can always let the events play out "in the background", as it were, and switch to an exciting minor plot line instead.

Last but not least, they add variety to a novel.

  • If the main plot is deadly serious, for example, introduce a light-hearted or even a comic subplot for some occasional light relief.
  • If the main plot is characterized by violence and non-stop action, make one of the minor plots more gentle and reflective in nature.

How to Handle Subplots

The key to not becoming hopelessly confused when plotting a novel with several plot lines running through it is to treat each plot - the main plot and all the lesser ones - as entirely separate mini-novels.

Begin by working out the main plot, then put it to one side and repeat the process for each of the lesser story lines.

(Of course, there will be a large amount of common ground between the plots, but focusing on each one as a separate story and ignoring the others - at least initially - will result in a much stronger novel. Trust me.)

Next, return to the main plot and roughly divide it into chapters (a chapter usually ends at the resolution of a scene). I like to do this with paper and scissors and lay out the chapters on the floor, in a long column, but you could do it on the word processor if you prefer.

Next, take your first subplot and also split it into chapters. Then it is simply a question of inserting these chapters into the body of the main plot...

  • Some of the subplot chapters will slot into the gaps in between the main chapters.
  • Others will sit side-by-side. (For example, if a chapter from the main plot involves the hero and his accomplice planning the robbery at the kitchen table, and a chapter from the subplot involves his wife begging him to drop this crazy plan, the two events could be merged into one.)
  • With other chapters, you might decide to scrap them altogether. (For example, if a chapter from the main plot is all about the hero and the accomplice checking out the casino's security procedures, and you decide it's kind of dull and inessential, you could switch the viewpoint to the accomplice instead and have him remember the story of his best friend's death while the boring work is going on.)

And so it continues...

First, you add one subplot to the main plot, then all the others.

There will be a lot of switching around and merging and altering here, but you should end up with a "Master Plot" containing the main plot and as many subplots as you have written.

The "Master Plot" is like the rope I mentioned earlier, and the strands within the rope are the individual story lines - all of them essentially separate, but all of them braided together to form a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

For a while, a particular strand will be at the forefront. Then it will loop out of sight again to be replaced by a different strand.