Use subplots to deepen your story
NOT ALL STORIES REQUIRE the addition of one or more subplots. Adding more to a rich, layered, and textured main plot could detract your reader.
On the other hand, subplots can:
- Deepen characterization by revealing flaws, strengths and growth.
- Deepen theme.
- Add complexity and momentum by diverting the reader’s attention from the main story, forcing tension until they can return to the main plot.
- Introduce back-story, which in turn layers inner conflict, motive and invokes sympathy with the reader.
- Introduce new characters.
- Develop relationships.
- Break up long scenes.
- Control story tension.
- Deepen conflict, making it more credible and complex.
- Subplots can involve the main or secondary characters or both.
Like the main plot, subplots must follow the same rules. They should have a beginning, middle and end. At the end of the story, tie them up in the reverse order in which they were introduced. If “A” is the main plot, “B” is secondary and “C” is tertiary, they should be introduced as A, B, C, and closed out as C, B, A.
The subplot should not overshadow the main plot. Whatever happens in the subplot, never lose sight of the main line of action.
The number of subplot scenes should not outnumber main plot scenes.
Do not introduce so many subplots the reader is distracted from the main story. One to three is the rule of thumb. It’s hard to make characters and their problems distinct after that.
Subplots come in two varieties:
- Parallel. The characters know each other through a common link—the workplace, a vacation resort, a wedding, but their stories are independent of each other. This can be difficult to pull off, but the characters can learn from each other and influence each other’s storylines.
- Interwoven. This is the most common type of subplot. Tie the subplot to the main plot and any other subplots and increase the complexity of the story. The subplots should affect the main plot. If the subplot can be omitted from the story without affecting the main plot, does it belong?
Subplots should cover three areas:
- There should be connections between the sub and main plots. Interweave the relationships. The outcome of one affects something else.
- They should add complications to the main plot. If the hero is fighting for a promotion, reveal his alcoholic background, have his sponsor fall off the wagon, or he should.
- It should contrast the main plot. Don’t repeat what’s established, but explore different tones, purposes and ranges. Portray a variety of experiences to add depth and complexity to the overall story.
Adroit handling of subplots will enrich your story.
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This is really helpful for me. I hadn’t thought about subplots too much in terms of how to introduce and resolve them. It’s a good thing I followed your rule in my recent manuscript without knowing there was a rule! 🙂 Thanks, Cheryl. 🙂
I gave you a rule? Must have been so subliminal I missed it.
Glad I could help.
Excellent post! I’m working on revising plots and subplots right now. I had no idea that the suggestion is to tie them up in reverse order.
Thank you for this!
Great suggestions. Subploting is a place where I struggle. This will certainly help me decide if I really need a storyline or if it should be cut.
Great advice! Subplots are a weird beast, and these are good guidelines to look at while crafting them. Thanks!
This is well timed for me, as I’m currently doing a rewrite that involves weaving in a subplot… But it’s actually a past timeline, so it’s somewhere between interwoven and parallel… IMMORTAL CHARACTERS ARE HARD WHY DID I AGREE TO THIS
Excellent points. Thanks for sharing.
Anna from elements of emaginette
Hi! I love subplots. I teach English and I love pointing them out in stories too 🙂 In my debut novel, a subplot developed as I wrote it, one that I hadn’t really intended. And it’s one of my favorite things about the book! Great advice here for creating them!
I like asking myself questions when I doing a structural edit of my draft. I’m going to add “If the subplot can be omitted from the story without affecting the main plot, does it belong?” to my list. It’s very clear and I think asking this (and rewriting) will make any story better.
This is great advice, although I do weave in subplots in longer works, in short stories they’re overkill. 🙂
Great tips – thank you!
My fiction so far has been short – novella and short novel. Novellas don’t have room for a subplot, and short novels have limited space … one reason I chose to start with them! This gives me some great tips for adding a subplot to my next manuscript.
There is so much here to unpack! I will be thinking about these points for days, and looking for examples to study.
I love a story that is interwoven with interesting subplots. But hate it when the author forgets to wrap them up and leaves you hanging at the end!
I’m glad I could help!
It’s important to close out all subplots, or the layers of the story are lost. Thanks for reading!
Thanks for these tips Cheryl, I hadn’t heard if the A,B,C – C,B,A method but it makes so much sense!
Thanks for this, but I had a question. If you’re working on a series, is it a good idea to carry over subplots between instalments? Does that make a reader more likely to come back for the next book or does it set up more problems in the long run?
Excellent advice on subplots. It helped me gain a better understanding of them. I have a quick question, if you don’t mind. I am writing book 1 of a trilogy and I’ve dropped subplot (seeds?) in it that will be resolved in books 2 and 3. I’ve also started char arcs for a few characters that won’t be resolved until book 2 or 3. My main protags char arcs and plots are absolutely wrapped up by the end of book 1 and they hardly even show up in later books as I shift focus to other characters. Does this work or have I done a “no-no”?
(And I can’t wait to read “What do you say to naked elf”! I just added to my TBR pile.
Drew, I’m working on a series now with a subplot that carries over. The main plots in books 1, 2, 3 are resolved and the subplot to all three becomes the main plot of book 4. I think as long as you satisfy the reader with closing out the main plot, you’re okay. My two cents as, until this series, I’ve never had to deal with the issue.
Thanks a lot for the post, Cheryl. This is gonna be so so helpful to me. I never knew subplots carry so much importance in a story. And thanks again for putting down everything so simply. The post clipped to Evernote. Thanks again. 🙂 Cheers!
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