A subplot is a secondary plot in your novel. It’s a smaller story that occurs alongside the larger primary focus without overtaking it, at least in theory. We’ll talk about that a bit more later. A lot of writers need clarification on their subplots with their main plot. Sometimes the difference is noticeable. If you’re writing a story about saving the world or falling in love, then it’s pretty clear. But if your story is more complex or multi-genre, you may need help determining which content is the primary focus and what’s more on the sidelines.
The easiest way to determine this is to take the concept in question and imagine it’s been removed from the story entirely. Can your plot still exist without this content in it? Sure, it might be less entertaining. You may have to delete a scene or two, but could you still tell your story? If the answer is yes, you’re looking at a subplot. They’re connected to the main plot but must be more pivotal.
We are diving deep into thinking up subplots, how to write them correctly, and which mistakes you should avoid. Pay close attention to these mistakes because they will spoil your manuscript. Subplots can make or break a story. If you have no subplots, your story can feel flat and lackluster. All your side characters were two-dimensional because they were only there to serve the protagonist’s plot. Or if you have too many subplots, it can sometimes distract from the main plot and divide your audience’s attention in many different directions. You can find a balance between the two.
You can cleverly craft subplots that add emotion and depth to your story while keeping the focus on the main character’s journey. So if you want to write fantastic subplots but need help figuring out where to start, you have a messy pile of ideas and need to know how to begin organizing them or incorporating them into your story, don’t worry. I am here to help. This article will explore the science of subplots and unpack the storytelling principles that make great subplots shine.
How to write subplots? (With Subplot Ideas)
Subplots are secondary stories with less screen time or story time and less emphasis than the main plot. At their best, subplots are supposed to enhance. The central theme and conflict of the story sound easy. Some people argue that we don’t even need subplots. The character that the readers care about is the protagonist. So why even waste time with other characters in their stories? Because other characters in their stories give your novel more layers of goodness for the reader to pull apart. They also give the reader different ways to grasp the themes you’re trying to deliver with your story.
So subplots can be powerful if they’re done right. That’s why I’m going to show you the keys to making subplots as engaging as the main plot and keeping track of them so that they don’t take over your story or distract from the main event.
The subplot is a character. Wherever you write down your subplots, try writing them down and outlining them. Write the name of the character, then explain, preferably in one sentence:
- What their role in the story is to the protagonist, their agenda, and how they will impact the story’s point.
So I will use an example in our example: Pride and Prejudice. We all know that Pride and Prejudice is a story about that.
How two people, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, find true love through a series of challenging events that cause them to realize how prideful and prejudiced they both have been and transform them into loyal, selfless couple goals. There are a lot of characters in this story and a few subplots. One of the biggest subplots in the story is with Lizzie’s sister, Jane. I was to outline the Jane subplot using the method I mentioned, character role agenda impact.
For example, Jane Bennet, Elizabeth’s closest sister, is on a quest to make a good match and hopefully find true love. She falls in love with the wealthy and charming Mr. Bingley when their relationship raises red flags for Bayley’s friend, Mr. Darcy. He unfailingly separates the couple and throws a monkey wrench into his relationship with Elizabeth.
Here are some types of subplots you can include in your story (List of subplots):
- Romantic subplot (Focus on romance).
- Mirror subplot (The main and side characters are going through the same situation).
- Conflict subplot (Based on the character’s confliction of activity/decision).
- Parallel subplot (Two similar plots with different characters).
- Expository subplot (Reveal true fact and understand the reality).
- Supporting subplot (Narrator and main character believe the same morality).
- Complicating subplot (A page-turner plot with a complex twist).
- Narrative subplot (Character faces/involves the other’s incident).
- Foil subplot (Two different characters solves the same problem in different ways).
- Mix and Match subplot (Different subplots adjust way meaningfully).
To learn more, follow my top 10 tips for writing subplots.
1. Stop affecting your protagonist
If you want to make your subplots the strongest they can be, there’s one question you have to ask yourself. Does my subplot directly engage with or impact my story’s central conflict or main character?
When your subplots stop affecting your protagonist, they become dull because we care about the protagonist. Every time something happens outside their field of vision. We’re interested in it, and we’re anticipating what’s going to happen when the protagonist finds out about this.
Even if you think you have more than one protagonist in your story, there will always be one character that is the main overarching character because we’re going to filter everything that happens through that character’s perspective. There’s one character that all the readers are going to filter what happens through their perspective. You only know who that is. So, your job is to ensure your subplot directly engages with or impacts that character.
As your subplot grows and changes and takes its direction, it doesn’t have to impact the life of the main character continuously. The protagonist is the yardstick that we measure. Everything gets as crucial as how important it is to the protagonist. That’s why stories with no real protagonist are typically very lackluster.
2. Consider characterization
A lot of people need to figure out what sort of subplots to include. If that’s the case, look at your characters. Your primary plot will reveal a specific side of your characters, especially your main character. If we’re writing action adventure, we’ll see their heroism and cunning. If you’re writing a tragedy, you will see their vulnerability and grief.
Subplots allow you to expand their characterization and show a different side of them. What side are you interested in exposing? Show a part of their personality that the main plot needs to get into. If your plot requires your character to be hard, consider a subplot that reveals their softer side.
- You can write about their relationship with their family or include a romantic subplot.
Character depth is one of the most incredible benefits of subplots.
3. Explore relationships
More often than not, subplots revolve around character relationships. Usually, they revolve around familial relationships, friendships, working relationships, sexual relationships, or romantic relationships. If you need help determining where to take your subplots, start there.
- Look at the people in your main character’s life. Or even better, look at the people you forgot to include in your main character’s life.
Have you ever read a book about a teenager living at home but somehow their parents are never mentioned? That makes a lot of sense. Addressing their relationship with their parents will add depth to your story and characters and help fill a huge plot hole.
4. Maintain realism
If you are writing any fantastical story with unbelievable elements, subplots will greatly benefit you because they help provide realism. If your book is about werewolves, monsters, or magic, all of these things are wonderful and entertaining, but they could be more believable. They don’t need to be realistic, but you need some believability to ground the readers.
Usually, this believability comes from the characters and their relationships. That’s why subplots are such an asset in realism because, as we already covered, they focus on character relationships. A book about sexy vampires could be a little hard to believe. But if you add a subplot about a friendship on the rocks or sibling rivalry, it suddenly becomes much more realistic. People can relate to that. When the dynamics are realistic, it’s easier for readers to get invested in the story and feel like they’re experiencing it alongside the characters.
5. Connect it to the plot
This is the most important tip when it comes to writing subplots. When crafting your subplots, you have to connect them to the main plot. Otherwise, it is going to feel like filler. Yes, deepening characterization is lovely. We love some good character relationships, but if that is all your subplots do, it will feel shoehorned in and unnecessary. Fortunately, ensuring your subplots are linked to the plot is easy.
- Ensure that the characters in your subplots are also involved in the main plot.
Somehow, say you’re writing about a princess trying to reclaim her kingdom. Maybe she falls in love with one of the soldiers aiding her cause your romantic subplot is linked to your main plot. They feel intertwined. Say you’re writing about a vampire slayer and want a family subplot. Maybe the Slayer feels a ton of guilt because she’s lying to her parents about her slaying ways. You’ve included a subplot about the emotional turmoil directly caused by the main plot. The subplot will feel intentional and vital.
6. Rein it in
This is the worst mistake you can make when writing subplots. Let them overtake the plot if you’re sure your subplots are overtaking it. Please take a look at them chapter by chapter. Every single chapter should include at least one plot point that moves the story forward, but subplots that don’t need to be featured in every chapter.
It’s fine if a chapter doesn’t include any subplots at all. Moreover, it’s okay if a single chapter predominantly focuses on a subplot, but that chapter still needs to move the main plot forward. No chapter should be 100% subplot and nothing else. Since you’ve linked your subplots to your main plot, this should be doable.
When this issue gets particularly bad, you end up with sagging middle syndrome, where the middle of your book is boring. You’re not moving the plot forward. Even though subplots are entertaining in their own right, they’re not what the readers signed up for. Your main plot is the promise you make to your readers. So it’s vital to ensure you keep the subplots to the side.
7. Mix it up
Speaking of looking at your story chapter by chapter, this is the best way to weave in your subplots. An excellent chapter utilizes what I refer to as the roller coaster method. Every chapter begins in a different emotional tone than how it ends. If you started on a high, you want to end on a low, and if you start on a low, you want to end on a high. It’s one subplot that comes in handy.
- Say your chapter opens with an intense battle sequence.
- Are you writing a dark, scary book? Add some romance or comedic relief?
- Are you writing a family drama? Add a hint of horror or a relationship that’s total drama free and easy.
It’s going to trigger suspense and fear in your readers. You want to make sure the chapter ends in a completely different emotional state, something that’s on the opposite end of the spectrum.
You could use a subplot to craft the emotional shift. The battle is over, and your hero is bandaged up by the man he loves. Using the roller coaster method, you switched from the main plot to the romantic subplot. Keep this in mind while you’re outlining your novel. Weaving subplots into your story is much easier during the outlining phase. That way, you can look at your outline chapter by chapter and ensure you’re keeping that emotional shift going.
8. Consider your themes
If you still need to decide what subplots to include, consider the theme of your novel, at least if you’ve got one. What message are you trying to convey? Your subplot could be another avenue for making this point. Say you’re writing a novel about a princess coming into her own and trying to evoke self-confidence and empowerment themes.
Your subplots could portray this message as well. Maybe she has a bad relationship with the other princesses from other kingdoms. They make fun of her and belittle her. Through the course of the novel, she’s able to stand up for herself and gain their respect. Thus, your subplot helps to reinforce your central plot theme, which will drive it home for readers.
9. Don’t overcomplicate it
Subplots are great, but your story can be less than 50. When you stuff your novel full of subplots, it stops adding depth and creates confusion. There are too many storylines to sift through, and the story’s purpose needs to be clarified. It also increases your odds of falling into sagging middle syndrome because you need to spend more precious pages on your subplots, and your main plot needs to be addressed.
- Don’t overcomplicate it.
A few subplots are fine, but you must call them down afterward.
10. Add resolutions
Your plot needs to be resolved by the end of your book, a.k.a. the resolution. The same goes for your subplots. Your subplots don’t have to be resolved in your novel’s resolution. They can be resolved at any time in the book but must happen at some point. You can’t only leave a subplot dangling. Readers will think you majorly ruined, which, to be fair, you did. The only exception to this is if you’re writing a series and plan to carry that subplot into the next book.
Usually, even in this situation, some cliffhanger lets readers know the story isn’t over. It lets readers know that this subplot is not over and will continue.
Mistakes of writing subplots
The first and most obvious thing to avoid is making the subplot boring. One of the points of a subplot is to introduce something new and exciting to the story. You don’t want to break up the excitement with boredom. Sure, subplots typically aren’t as engaging as the actual plot. If they were, they would be the actual plot. But they should be entertaining and serve an easily identifiable purpose.
The second thing to avoid is leaving the subplots unresolved. If you’re writing a series, you have some wiggle room, and your subplot will continue into the next book. But if one of your subplots involves a friendship on the rocks and nothing ever comes of it, your reader will be confused. It’ll serve as a massive distraction from the actual plot. They’re wasting time wondering if these two friends will work it out.
The third thing you should avoid is writing subplots that overcomplicate the story. In my opinion, the best stories are complicated, but if you have so many subplots, the book only becomes difficult. That’s a problem. Reading fiction can undoubtedly be challenging, but remember, it should always be entertaining. Here are two big mistakes that writers quickly make:
1. Focusing too much on subplot
The biggest mistake most writers make with writing subplots is focusing too much on what happens and not enough on why it matters. They make the mistake of thinking that a subplot is only a series of events happening on the side, subordinate to the main plot or conflict.
While that may be true by definition, there are more helpful ways to look at it from the writer’s perspective. When we understand why what’s happening matters to the protagonist, we start empathizing with them. We begin to understand their internal conflict. Once we realize that, we start to feel for them. Then, the conflict no longer matters to the protagonist.
2. Lack of internal conflict
It’s vital to craft strong internal conflict for your protagonist, but it continues. Your side characters need to have internal conflict too. Why? Because they are the anchor of every good subplot. So instead of asking yourself, “What happens with the side characters?” Try asking yourself, “What internal journey does my side character experience throughout the story?”
Side characters still need internal conflict, and you can still show us their internal conflict without necessarily going inside their point of view. This is where so many writers need to be corrected. They create a subplot without ever anchoring that subplot to a sub-character. It’s the characters we can relate to and empathize with.
- Remember, your side characters don’t enter the story because the plot needs them to.
That’s the difference between a passive character and an active character. So the big question is this, how do we make our audience care about our side characters?
First, making them matter to the main character makes sense because this is the first character we’re introduced to. We start to learn about their internal conflict. The protagonist is the measuring device we subconsciously use to understand the importance of everything in the story.
In other words, everything gets its importance from how important it is to the protagonist, side characters included. So, you can ask yourself one question to understand immediately whether or not your subplot matters.
- Does my subplot directly engage with or impact the main character in my story?
See, there needs to be this direct connection to understand why it matters.
Note: When we don’t see the direct connection between the protagonists that we care about and the side characters, our subconscious starts searching for meaning, searching for that connection. We want to have a reason to care. So make your subplots matter to your protagonist.
5 benefits of writing subplots
The subplot isn’t the basis of the story. You’ll not see it featured in any depth in the synopsis. But that doesn’t mean it’s not essential. I’d argue that subplots are significant. Your subplot should directly affect the main plot in some form, or else they shouldn’t be there at all. Subplots aren’t always necessary to a story, but they usually are. They make the story better.
1. Subplots improve your characters
Your protagonist has a problem, and they spend the entire book trying to deal with it until they’re finally able to solve it. This doesn’t tell us much about the character, does it? If we’re only seeing one side of this character, the side that’s fixated on their problem, we’re not getting a good look at who they are as a person. While you might think, “Who cares?
The reader doesn’t need a good look. They need to follow the story.” It totally matters that the reader gets a well-rounded look at the protagonist because that will make them like the protagonist. That’s what’s going to make them relate to the protagonist. That’s what’s going to make them root for the protagonist. If your reader doesn’t get a good feel for the character or can’t connect with them, they’re not going to care what happens to them.
- Subplots allow the protagonist to showcase multiple sides of their personality.
That’s the beauty of the subplot. They allow you to expand on your character and make them infinitely likable.
2. Subplots add variety
Your story’s main plot will probably have one or two flavors. If we’re writing romance, your plot will be mushy and passionate. Romantic subplots are the most popular subplot to have ever been called a subplot. Romance changes the game and can change what your character believes is important. If you’re writing an adventure, your plot will be gripping and exciting. These are all good things. But too much of a good thing can be exhausting, and subplots provide the relief you need.
- Subplots break up the action and intensity with something new and refreshing.
It’s especially relevant if you’re writing anything dark or violent. So throw in a subplot or two to relieve the tension. Give your reader a cute romantic story to swoon over between the bouts of bloodshed. Give them something to laugh at. Everyone loves to laugh. That’s the job of the subplots. They’re there to mix up the monotony of whatever weight your main plot carries within the story.
3. Subplots will give your story length
Writers tend to fall into two categories: overwriters and underwriters. Overwriters are the people who produce a ton of content and then spend the entire editing phase trying to trim it down. Underwriters are the people who write the bare bones of their story and then labor over having to beef it up. Half the time I read an underwriter’s manuscript, their story is too short because they don’t have any subplots.
- Adding a subplot or two will lengthen your manuscript without requiring you to write filler content.
You should never write filler content.
4. Subplots can promote your story’s theme
More often than not, when you’re writing a story, especially an impactful one, there’s a point to it. You’ve got a message you want to communicate, a pearl of wisdom you want to deliver to the masses. Your main plot is your primary avenue for getting this point across. But the beauty of subplots is that they can easily promote your theme.
Say the message you’re trying to promote is to stick it to the man. Yeah! Your protagonist lives in a super corrupt society ruled by robots or something, and she has to take down the Robot King because no robot will tell her how to live her life. Then say your subplot revolves around the girl’s relationship with her dad. He is an avid robot supporter, and not only that, but he is a real piece of work. So by the end of the book, not only was she able to take down the evil Robot King, but she was able to stand up to her dad.
5. Subplots will make your story realistic
The most important reason to include subplots is realistic feelings. We all live complicated lives. No matter what goal we’re pursuing, things will inevitably get in the way or situations that require our attention. Some of us have issues with our families. Some of us have to go to school or work. Some of us fall in and out of love. These are the things that make for a well-rounded life.
Implementing these elements into your story will make your characters’ lives more realistic and relatable. Additionally, many of us writers like to write pretty far-fetched stories. If your story is filled with unreal that doesn’t exist, it’s nice to add some realism to the mix. That’s what the subplots are for.
- Subplots usually revolve around character dynamics: a failing marriage or a strange relationship between father and son.
These problems are relatable, and it’s nice to have that authenticity to punctuate the fantastical shenanigans. Suddenly fairies and werewolves don’t feel that far-fetched between the glitter and shifting someone’s getting into a fight with their girlfriend.
Subplots seem scary, making them challenging to complete in your novel. You know what you want to happen, but everyone’s telling you subplots. It often requires a lot of planning ahead of time and figuring out how to weave a separate story into your main story without getting things confused, which makes it intimidating and causes a lot of writers to outright avoid it.
A subplot has to have a beginning, a middle, and some resolution. For this reason, it needs to have its story arc. The subplot may not feel important to the story if you miss a piece of the arc. The resolution must affect the main plot, even if you’re only showing character development here, and it’s nothing major you think it is central. Your subplot must affect the main plot to be relevant to the story.
Many people ask me about how many subplots a novel should have. Basically, you can add up to 3 subplots in your novel. If you can handle it better, you can add whatever you want because there is no specific rule for it. Don’t forget to keep the subplot relatable, keep them entertaining, and make them complimentary to the plot.
More plot writing tips:
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