As a novelist you can add depth and emotional connection with your readers with a subplot. You’ll deepen your story and expand insight into your characters. As a story device a subplot expands the story beyond the main storyline.
What Is A Subplot?
A subplot is a story strand that supports and runs alongside the main plot. A subplot is like a mini-story within your main story with a beginning, middle, and end. The subplot story augments the main story through connections like mirroring the main plot but without the drastic consequences or contrasting the main story by showing success where the main storyline throws up obstacles.
The subplot is not a separate story—that would be another novel—but connects to the main story in some manner like time, place, and often thematic significance. Also, subplots directly interact with the main story at least one time in the storyline. Supporting characters can play a major role in subplots, not just the main protagonist or antagonist.
A subplot is shorter than the main story, taking up less space in the storyline. The events in the subplot are less significant than those in the main story and involve supporting characters.
How a Subplot Works In Your Novel
Use subplots to expand your story with details, characters, and story sequences that are not directly part of the main storyline.
Subplots work best with planning. To make subplots work effectively, create a separate story arc with the characters involved in the subplot. Tie the subplot to the main story at one or more points.
When you brainstorm ideas for subplots, focus on how they support the main story. Subplots might do any of the following:
- Mirror or support a central character such as the protagonist or antagonist.
- Provide backstory for the main storyline.
- Explore the story theme at a different level than the main story.
- Create complications for the main storyline affecting the central action.
- Expand the story world with details.
Novel-writing site Now Novel recommends three main attributes to create tension with subplots: romantic interest, conflict, and supporting characters who know too much. Creating tension is one of the best ways to keep readers engaged and turning pages.
Subplots that work well enhance your story rather than taking readers away from the central thread. Design your subplot to enrich your reader’s experience while keeping them focused on the main story. Your subplot needs to influence the main storyline or it shouldn’t be there at all.
Why Have a Subplot?
If a subplot is all the work of creating a story, you may wonder, "Why bother?" You want to create your main story and that work is hard. Why add more work? Here are a few reasons.
A subplot makes your story meatier, giving your readers more excitement and character knowledge.
Expand on Your Protagonist and Make Him/Her More Likeable
Give your reader a well-rounded look at the protagonist. The more the reader knows, the more they care about your hero. They will like her more and relate to him better. Those are the very reader emotions that make them root for heroes as they tackle the main story problem.
Inject Variety into Your Story
Depending on your theme, the main story may be packed with adventure and action or filled with romantic tension. Your subplot can vary the mood by adding romance to an action thriller, tension to romance, humor to a dark story. Subplots provide the reader relief from the main emotions and give them new reading avenues to explore in your story.
Increase Story Length
Add to the length of your novel with subplots rather than trying to create filler content for the main story. Your readers will keep turning pages.
Promote the Story Theme
Create a subplot that mirrors and enhances the theme of your book. Is your heroine ready to fight the evil empire? Give her a subplot where she and her dad don’t get along and not only that, he supports the evil empire. When she finally tells her dad she’s gone, the subplot mirrors her ability to conquer the evil empire. Plus, you’ve given your readers more meat to chew on, developed your heroine’s character, and underscored your theme—all with one subplot.
Make Your Story Realistic
Real life doesn’t go in a straight line. Subplot complications will make your story more realistic. Your heroine doesn’t just take on the Evil Empire, she has to deal with her overbearing dad, or maybe she finds a love interest. The more realistic complications, the more intriguing your readers will find your story.
When you add the subplot dimension, your main character becomes more realistic as she juggles her various challenges. And your character will be much more relatable. Readers lead complicated lives, too.
Subplot Mistakes to Avoid
Subplots need your attention to make them realistic and keep readers turning pages. If this is your first novel and your first time creating subplots here are pitfalls to avoid:
Boring mini-story. If you go to all the work of creating a subplot, make sure you give it the attention and detail that goes into any good story. Don’t just add a subplot because you think you need one. Give it punch.
Resolve the subplot story. Your subplot is a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Your subplot has a climax and resolution; they’re just not as grand as the main story. Without resolution, your readers will feel cheated not just about the subplot but the whole novel.
Don’t over-complicate. Too many subplots will confuse your reader. Don’t make your reader work to find story threads. Especially for beginning writers, use two or three subplots, no more.
Relatable, Entertaining, and Related to the Main Plot
Make your subplots relatable to your reader, entertaining, and related to the main plot. If you keep three main goals in mind your subplot will create interest and get your readers involved.