One of my favorite parts of storytelling is subplots. A lot of writers refer to them as “strands” of a story, but I like to think of them as one with the story. I don’t separate them, and sometimes I don’t even plan them. That’s not to say I don’t plot them. I let them develop naturally within my story world and tweak when needed. Of course, some subplots do need to be brainstormed and plotted carefully.
Many writers are intimated by subplots. Writing the main plot is enough work, and now we, here in the literary world, are asking you to do more work. I’m telling you though–great stories require great subplots. Don’t think of throwing in your hat quite yet, though. I’ve got great news regarding subplots.
You’ve probably done half the work already.
Subplots are ingrained in our stories so deeply that sometimes we can’t see that we already have them, that we already started writing one. You have in-depth characters? In-depth world building? Then you already have enough material for subplots. That conflict you’re writing with a romantic interest or best friend is a subplot. The war raging outside the main plot is a subplot. The envy a character feels for another character is a subplot.
We have subplots in our own lives by having relationships with other people. We have family subplots, friend subplots, romantic subplots. We all have a main goal we are trying to achieve, but just like in novels, our lives are not a straight shot.
Where we have community, we have subplots.
Note: If your story relies on pacing, you’ll likely not have subplots. Pieces such as thrillers are fast-paced, and there’s no room for them.
What are subplots?
Subplots can run the entire length of the novel, half of it, or for only a short time. They often involve the secondary characters but can be about your protagonist. No matter who you choose for the subplot, they should, at some point, involve your main character. Subplots are simple to write if you know your characters. Characters who you’ve spent time on will be complex, and there is often opposition between them. Subplots add depth to your story and can evoke empathy in your reader. They can give your readers a break from the main story-line to explore your character’s world. This could be relationships with each other, problems arising in your world, or internal conflict.
Keep in mind that your subplots don’t have to appear to connect at first, but by the end of your piece, your reader will see the connection.
So, how do you write better subplots?
The first step to writing a subplot is to brainstorm them. I like to use a whiteboard for brainstorming, but you can do whatever is most comfortable for you. To brainstorm, you must first know what your central theme or main plot is. You also have to know your characters. The more complex characters you develop, the better subplots you’ll come up with.
Subplots show different angles of your theme, plot, or characters. For instance, the theme of love can be shown with the protagonist who is trying to find love or has a love interest. Secondary characters can already have found their true love, or are struggling with their partner, or detest love. It shows choices, and choices show conflict.
Out of your list of possible subplots, look at the ones that will increase conflict. The trick here is to choose ones that relate to the central theme or main plot. As stated, they don’t have to make sense to your reader right away. Even a romantic subplot can end up influencing your main plot. There’s no greater incentive to save the world if it means saving the romantic interest or family.
Subplots can stem from your main plot, too. Two important characters don’t agree with a plan and their always at odds over what the next step should be. Conflict happens even if you’re on the same side.
Showing how characters handle smaller conflicts can foreshadow coming bigger conflicts. Your readers see how your characters dealt with the less important ones, and it makes them unsure if your character is doomed to repeat the not so graceful ones. On the flip side, it shows their strengths.
Using Subplots For Back Story
If you’ve ever read Pride and Prejudice, you know that Darcy and Wickham knew each other. Not only was Wickham used as a subplot with Lydia, but it also gave readers information on both Darcy and Wickham creatively. It showed us their character without telling us.
Austin is certainly not the only one to use this type of subplot to further develop our understanding of her characters. We see it in some of the best novels and movies out there, and you can use this technique, too. Snape hated Harry, but we didn’t quite understand why until Rowling used a subplot between Lily, James, and Snape during their younger years.
What’s the right number of subplots?
There is no formula for the right number of subplots. A lot of writers say stick to one for every 15,000 words or so. I say that’s too limiting for what subplots can do. My only rule is this: if the subplot outshines the story, either change your story or delete the subplot from it (to use it as the main plot in another story).
Every point of view in your story will add a subplot because every character is different. Even your antagonist can be a subplot and have subplots if you wish it.
How to write a subplot.
The good thing is that writing a subplot mimics how you would write the main plot.
You give your character a problem, have them try to solve the problem, throw conflict in and opposition, and bring about the resolution.
The resolution will depend on your preferences. You can have them achieve their goal or not. Depending on the length of your subplot will depend on how many plot points it gets. They always get a beginning, middle, and end, though.
That’s the jist of subplots. Go forth and write!
Leave comment below to tell us what you’re favorite subplots are.