Many people are familiar with subplots. They are those side stories that give a novel’s plot depth. A subplot may involve the main character or minor characters, but they enrich the story if done well.
Subplots are everywhere. We see them in the movies we watch, and they are usually in every novel we read. We may instinctively know how they work in story structure.
If you’re writing a novel or planning on writing one, you maybe have considered adding in a subplot or three. Okay, so where do you start?
There isn’t much written on crafting subplots—which I find odd.
Is there some secret to coming up with a great one? And does every novel need a subplot?
Let me answer the second question first.
I can’t speak for every novel, but I will say that a novel with merely one main plot may come across shallow or one-dimensional. While your best-selling thriller, like The Bourne Identity, won’t often have a subplot, readers aren’t looking so much for depth or theme as they are for the ride. A subplot might slow down pacing and distract.
I’ll venture to say, though, that even genres that don’t “need” subplots can often benefit from one, if it’s pertinent to the overarching plot and point of the story. What’s the point of a thriller aside from the thrill?
We’re talking about theme here. Even a Bourne Identity can have themes of integrity, loyalty, doing the right thing, risking life and safety for others, exposing evil.
But this brings me to my point, in order to answer the first question. No, there isn’t a “secret” method to come up with a great subplot, but find your main theme, and that will point the way for you.
Before I elaborate, let me say this . . .
Writers need to be careful not to throw any old subplot into a story in the hope it will just add some interest. If you keep in mind that everything that goes into your novel must serve the advancement and complication of the main plot, you will fare well.
Subplots Serve a Purpose
What do I mean by “serve the advancement” of the main plot? Your main plot is all about a protagonist going after a goal in the midst of conflict and high stakes.
So, if you keep in mind that any subplots you create should add to the main plot in a meaningful way, that can help you come up with some interesting and helpful subplots.
Subplots can involve your protagonist and/or your secondary characters. Regardless, whatever side stories you weave into your novel, they need to impact your protagonist.
I have read numerous novels, some by best-selling authors, who have subplots thrown into their stories that don’t fit at all. These subplots feel dropped in as noise and distraction, and I’ve sometimes found myself skimming pages to get past them in order to get back to the gripping main plot. That’s a bad thing.
In addition to being irrelevant to the novel’s purpose and premise, they are often boring, featuring mundane concerns and activities that don’t add anything of interest. And that makes for a dissatisfied reader.
Plot Layers That Mimic Real Life
We want our characters to have lives that feel real and similar to our own. Novels should be portraying a slice of real life (but just more interesting, we hope). Our lives are multilayered with different objectives or goals, and if you look at your life in these terms, you can identify numerous goals you are pursuing each day, year in and year out.
Some of these goals are big and cover years of your life. The “big” goal in your life may be to find a person to marry, raise a family, get a college degree or a great job, scale Mount Everest. Much of your time, effort, and thinking may wrap around a big goal.
However, life is not one main plot. Life is full of short-term and long-term goals. You may have some more immediate goals of trying to write a paper for a class or put a presentation together for your job. You may have the goal of losing ten pounds over the next few months. These are also goals that you could think of as “subplots” in your life.
And then you have small daily goals, like getting the grocery shopping done or finding a company to come shampoo your carpets. Life is made up of layers of goals. Layers of plot in the story of your life. Some goals may be boring; others exciting. But it’s all part of life.
How to Show Ordinary Life in a Meaningful Way
Now, since you don’t want your novel or characters to be boring or involved in boring activities, this begs the question:
How do you make your characters feel real and have their experiences mirror real life if you don’t have similar plot layers, including some of the daily mundane, boring ones?
Glad you asked. And this, to me, is the secret to writing great subplots. Make this the word you associate with subplots: complicate.
If you make it your objective to use your subplots to complicate your story, you’re on the right track. That doesn’t mean you want to throw in side stories that are only messy situations.
So with every subplot you add in (and often, the more the better), utilizing any number of secondary characters, find a way for this additional story line to be a complication.
For whom? Ultimately, for your protagonist. For, even if the subplot is about another character, the impact of what that character is going through has to affect your protagonist.
Don’t throw random subplots into your novel just for filler or because you think they are neat ideas. They really must serve a purpose in your story.
Sure, make some of them entertaining, even providing comic relief. Subplots really help to bring out your characters and all their issues, and they help make your characters clash, which, to me, is the best reason for layering plots.
Subplots are great devices for showcasing theme, with your secondary characters embodying an opposing view from that of your protagonist.
Take some time to brainstorm lots of ideas for your subplots. Think about the allies and antagonists in your novel, who are there to help or hinder your main character in reaching her objective for the book.
If you make it your aim to make it as hard as possible for your hero to reach his goal, subplots can be very useful in this way. Don’t settle for a boring, wimpy subplot as filler. A great subplot can turn a good novel into a great one.
Can you think of any great subplots in a novel you read recently? Share in the comments!
To further help you (since space is limited here), I wrote a number of blog posts last year on Live Write Thrive on subplot structure. You can download my handy 20-Scene Subplot Structure chart here, which gives you ideas on how to develop your subplot and interweave it with the main plot. [Note: the subplot scenes on the chart are numbered 11-20, as they are layer in with the first layer of the ten key scenes. Again, if you want to learn more about layering scenes, check out my blog posts on the topic.]
C. S. Lakin is an award-winning novelist, writing instructor, and professional copyeditor who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her award-winning blog for writers, Live Write Thrive, provides deep writing instruction and posts on industry trends. In addition to sixteen novels, Lakin also publishes writing craft books in the series The Writer’s Toolbox, and you can get a copy of Writing the Heart of Your Story and other free ebooks when you join her Novel Writing Fast Track email group.