Subplots matter. They beef up what might have been a very slim novel, and they add variety to the story. They’re simple to handle, too, once you know how.
The good news is that you’ve already done most of the hard work. Once you’ve read all the detailed articles in the plotting section, you’ll know precisely how to write a page-turning main plot for your novel.
Subplots are governed by the same principles as a main plot, only they’re much smaller (more like short stories).
In practical terms, that means you don’t need to build each one using the complex 10-step plotting process from earlier. Think more in terms of a three-step process…
- Give the character a goal.
- Make them struggle to achieve it.
- Bring things to a resolution (win, lose or draw).
In some novels, telling the main plot apart from the subplots isn’t easy. They can all seem equally important. Where one or more of the subplots is complex, you will need to devote as much care to building it as you did the main plot.
Generally, though, the subplots are there to enhance and strengthen the main story. They’re not there to compete with it.
Think of it this way…
The main plot should always begin and end the novel (and account for the bulk of the middle, too). Any subplots should happen within these “bookends”.
Where Do Subplots Come From?
A subplot can revolve around the protagonist (i.e. the same character that the main plot is about). Or it can be about one of the other major characters in the story.
For example, if you’re writing a crime novel…
The main plot is about the plan to rob a casino. It’s 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) are a subplot.
If the main plot is partly seen through the eyes of the hero’s accomplice, these scenes represent another subplot.
You might think that the last one is actually a part of the main plot, just seen through different eyes. But it isn’t. A plot, remember, is ultimately about a character pursuing a goal. So if you have different goals, you have different plots…
The hero’s goal in the main plot is to successfully rob the casino.
His goal in the subplot is to save his marriage.
The accomplice’s subplot revolves around the casino robbery. But whereas the hero’s goal is to get rich, the accomplice’s goal is to exact revenge on the casino manager, who was responsible for the death of his best friend.
More on Subplots and Point of View
Every viewpoint character that you use in your novel (beyond the standard “one”) effectively adds another subplot to the novel.
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.
Write the story from the viewpoints of both characters (i.e. a multiple viewpoint novel) and you have two plots. You either have equally-sized main plots or you have a main plot and a subplot, depending on whether the novel is about both characters equally, or whether one character is more important than the other.
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’ll have different goals and face different obstacles.
Introduce a third point of view into the story (Sarah’s best friend, say), even for just a couple of chapters, and you’ve 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 has an effect on the main plot, there’s no subplot, which means she’s not important enough to be a viewpoint character. But the reverse is not true…
Just because she has a goal which affects the main plot, you don’t have to make her a viewpoint character. You could easily tell her story through John’s and/or Sarah’s eyes.)
Bottom line? Every major character in your novel will have a goal to pursue, one that’s related to the main plot. Some of these goals will be important enough or interesting enough for a subplot. Others will naturally blend into the main plot.
To illustrate that, let’s return to the robbery from earlier…
The accomplice’s goal, remember, is to exact revenge for his best friend’s death (caused, he believes, by the casino manager). When you create the character of the accomplice, it’s important to know what drives him (it’s a crucial part of getting to know him).
But whether you elevate his story into a subplot, or simply let it blend into the main plot, is up to you. Let’s run through the options…
1. Let his story blend into the main plot
Here, you won’t make the accomplice a viewpoint character. He’ll appear in a lot of the scenes, but always through the eyes of another character (probably the hero’s eyes).
You, the writer, will know that the accomplice has a different goal to the hero. But the hero will simply notice that “something is up” with his friend. For example, when they discuss what to do with the money in an early scene, the hero will find it odd that his friend doesn’t seem excited at the prospect of all that money.
Later in the novel, their conflicting goals will eventually bubble to the surface. They’ve robbed the vault and it’s time to escape. But the accomplice doesn’t want to leave yet. He wants to go to the manager’s office and rob that, too – thereby putting their escape in jeopardy.
It’s here that we, the readers, finally get to hear about the accomplice’s true goal (exacting revenge for his best friend’s death). And we found out about it without needing to elevate it into a separate subplot.
How does the story end?
The hero gets away and the accomplice stays behind. The next day, the hero hears that his friend has been arrested for murdering the manager in his office. The accomplice might have failed to rob the casino without getting caught, but he succeeded in his true goal of avenging his friend’s death.
2. Turn his story into a subplot
Like I said, all of your major characters will have their individual goals. All you need to do is decide which of these goals, if any, are worthy of “elevating” to a subplot.
If you decide that the accomplice’s goal is worthy, the first thing to do is turn him into a viewpoint character. Then, in the scenes in which he’s in the spotlight, you simply tell his story – how his best friend was killed, how the casino manager was responsible, and so on.
The novel can proceed exactly as in Option #1 above. But you’d include additional scenes in which we get to spend some time with the accomplice – not least, the scene near the end where he goes to the manager’s office and kills him.
How many scenes should the accomplice get?
That’s entirely up to you. You could give him just two or three scenes (keeping the subplot fairly minor). Or you could give him almost half the book (making his story almost as central as the hero’s).
If in doubt, keep subplots on the shorter side (the more space you give them, the more you lessen the impact and importance of the main plot). But if you think you’ll tell a better story by making the hero and the accomplice more or less equal, go for it.
Obviously, the shorter a subplot is, the easier it will be to create. Just give the character a goal, throw in some conflict and bring things to a resolution. The longer a subplot is, the more closely you’ll have to follow the 10-step plotting process.
An Imperfect Analogy
Think of a novel like a length of rope. At one end is the beginning, 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 subplots. But you get the idea.)
The important thing is this…
Although the strands are all seamlessly interweaved, they actually remain separate. In other words, it should always be possible to remove an individual subplot from a novel without the story as a whole collapsing. It might weaken it, just as removing a strand from a rope would weaken it. But the story should still make sense.
Why Are Subplots Important?
First up, subplots are obviously useful in turning what might otherwise be a very slim novel into something more substantial.
Short stories usually consist of one plot, and a very simple plot at that. Turn this simple plot into a longer, more complex one and you’ll have something recognizable as a novel on your hands. But for a truly complex story, which most novels are, you need these multiple strands of subplot running through it.
Beyond merely bumping up the word-count and adding complexity to the story, there are other, stronger advantages to adding subplots to a novel…
For one thing, they help with the characterization. Or at least the subplots told from the protagonist’s viewpoint do.
If the crime novel above dealt only with the robbery, we’d only see the hero “at work”. By including the romantic subplot 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.
Second, subplots can help with the portrayal of theme…
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 as the novel progresses, he finds out he’s addicted to the buzz of his job and couldn’t give it up if he tried.
That’s it for the main plot. But having subplots allows the writer to explore this theme in more depth and from 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 does. They’d be bored inside a month sitting on a beach in Italy, and they both know it.
They just haven’t admitted it until now.
And in the accomplice’s subplot, he might have thought he blamed the manager for his best friend’s death. But the truth is that he himself is the one to blame. Revenge seemed a noble motive, but he’s really doing this for the money after all, 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’s another advantage of subplots…
They keep readers reading. However well you construct the main plot, there will always be slower parts punctuating the exciting parts.
Now, slow parts in a story are good to an extent. They’re like stretches of calm water in between the rapids. 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 subplot instead.
Last but not least, subplots 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.
Or if the main plot is characterized by violence and non-stop action, make one of the subplots more gentle and reflective in nature.
How to Handle Subplots
What’s the key to not becoming hopelessly confused when plotting a novel with several subplots running through it? Treat each strand as an entirely separate story.
Begin by working out the main plot, in broad terms. Then put it to one side and repeat the process (albeit in a far less complex way) for each subplot.
Of course, the plots will share a lot of common ground. But focusing on each one as a separate story and ignoring the others will result in a much tighter novel.
Next, return to the main plot and roughly divide it into scenes. Do the same thing with your first subplot. Then simply insert the subplot scenes into the body of the main plot…
Some of the subplot scenes will slot neatly into the gaps between the main plot scenes.
Others will sit side-by-side. Let’s say a scene from the main plot involves the hero and his accomplice planning the robbery at the kitchen table. A scene from the subplot involves his wife begging him to drop this crazy plan. Solution? Merge the two scenes into one.
With other scenes, you might decide to scrap them altogether. Let’s say a scene from the main plot is about the hero and the accomplice checking out the casino’s security procedures. If you decide it’s dull and inessential, you could switch the viewpoint to the accomplice 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. But you should end up with a kind of “Master Plot” containing the main plot and all the subplots woven into it.
The Master Plot is like the rope I mentioned earlier. All of the subplots are are essentially separate. But they’re all woven into the main plot to form a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.