Creative Writing Writing 101 2016-05-17 00:00

How to Use Subplots to Bring Your Whole Story Together

The Crucible plot points

At ProWritingAid, we’ve been tackling how to write your novel in 2016, and we’ve covered a lot of ground so far. Last month, we talked about 4 Plot Pitfalls to Avoid, and this month we’re going to discuss how to handle various subplots.

  1. What is a Subplot?
  2. Types of Subplots
  3. The Key to Making It All Work
  4. How Many Subplots Should You Have?
  5. Final Notes

What is a Subplot?

Just like in real life, your characters will have more than one thing demanding their time and attention. Romances, family life, work concerns, health issues, friendships, etc. These additional plot lines are subplots that give your story depth and help keep it moving.

And as with your main plot, all subplots should follow a narrative arc of conflict, crisis, and resolution, usually wrapped up before the main plot’s climax.

Subplots can be what’s happening to secondary characters or an internal conflict your main character is facing in addition to the main conflict of your story. The key to an effective subplot is how you work it into the main plot.

Types of Subplots

There are a lot of ways to create subplots. We’ll cover three main types here:

  • Mirror. The mirror subplot happens when you create a secondary conflict that mirrors the main conflict, but usually doesn’t actually match it. For example, a mirror subplot to a romance novel could be a secondary character—say your main character’s best friend—who also falls in love, but it doesn’t turn out as nicely for her at the end. Your main character might learn something through this subplot that helps her through her own conflict.

  • Contrast. This is where you show the opposite progress or growth from the main plot. You could give your main character a weakness that she has to overcome and include the same or similar weakness in a secondary character. That’s where the plots diverge, though. Your secondary character’s contrasting subplot would show her refusing to grow or change, which helps your main character see her own stagnation and break through it.

  • Complications. Subplots that complicate things for your main character are great ways to always keep your reader turning the pages. Say your main character has an important task to complete for the story’s main conflict. Someone can throw a monkey wrench into your story and make things near impossible for your main character. Complicating subplots happen outside of the main plot, but still affect the trajectory your character follows to the climax.

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The Key to Making It All Work

Your subplots must all be connected. A subplot that doesn’t have any bearing on or effect to the final denouement in your story should be cut. It’s much like weaving an intricate cloth together from separate strands of thread. The ending will create a comprehensive story made up of many subplots that all tie together at the end.

Let’s look at a subplot in practice. In To Kill a Mockingbird, you have the mystery of Boo Radley that consumes Scout, Jem, and Dill’s attention during the summers. This subplot shows up time and again throughout the narrative to add fuel to your curiosity. There’s the curious case of the trinkets that show up in the knothole in the tree, and just who put the blanket around Scout’s shoulders at the fire. Just who is Boo? And how scary crazy is he? This subplot ties in nicely at the end of the book (no spoiler alert) when Scout finally realizes that sympathy and understanding are the keys to life rather than hatred and prejudice.

Think about some of your favorite books and analyze their subplots. A subplot could be constructed around a love interest for your main character or some type of internal conflict she must overcome. You can have a subplot that creates empathy for your main character by showing her vulnerability or a deep-seated desire that she’s not even aware of. There can be mystery subplots, coming-of-age subplots, even a vendetta subplot. The sky is the limit.

How Many Subplots Should You Have?

There’s no hard and fast rule about the number of subplots that will work, but as you can imagine, having too many subplots can create confusion for your reader and headaches for you. A good rule of thumb is to have your main conflict, an inner conflict, and a handful of subplots.

The easiest way to create your subplots is to follow the same steps you take for the main plot (See our earlier post, Are You Ready to Draft Your Plot). The difference is that your subplots will be simpler and have fewer steps to take for resolution. In fact, you can introduce a subplot and have it resolved in a few chapters, or you can thread a subplot throughout until the end.

Final Notes

Don’t let your subplots hijack your main plot. If you find a subplot taking over, think about whether it should actually have a life of its own? Maybe it’s the premise for your next story.

Just like your main plot, subplots shouldn’t be arbitrarily thrown in without careful thought and development. And woe unto you who does not wrap up a subplot by the end. If a subplot shows up at the beginning of your story, make sure it’s resolved—for better or worse—by the end if you want a satisfied reader.

Until next month, happy writing!

If you enjoyed this post about writing a novel, you might also enjoy these articles from our archive:

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