All About Subplots

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In my opinion, any good story of significant length needs at least one subplot. Secondary plots serve to add complexity, increase tension and impact, underscore the main plot, and generally make the story more interesting. But poorly done subplots can easily feel scattered or unnecessary. The line between a good subplot and a bad one can be something as small as a pacing issue, or context that can easily be added. Subplots are an opportunity to add to the story anything you want to cover that doesn’t quite figure into the primary story arc––but you do have to make it fit. To that end, here are some tips on writing subplots––

Before you start incorporating a subplot, make sure it makes some kind of sense.

I am generally a strong believer that first drafts don’t have to be anything but themselves—that is, they just have to exist. I’ve heard it said that the first draft is you telling the story to yourself. After that comes a lot of fine tuning. But when it comes to subplots, I do think it’s important to make sure your “side story” (that’s really what a subplot is, to oversimplify it) makes sense with the larger plot and has some purpose aside from being fun to write. It doesn’t have to be directly related to the main plot. Not at all. But it does have to fit, and make the story better. To make it easier to tell whether your subplot feels disjointed or out of place…

Subplots have three primary purposes––to develop characters and relationships, to develop the main plot, and to develop a theme.

There are exceptions to every rule, but for the most part subplots should fall under one of these categories. If your subplot fits into one of the three, chances are you can make it work with the story. But making it work is dependent on many factors; from the development of the subplot itself, to pacing, to connecting the subplot to the story element it’s intended to emphasize or expand upon. Note that that connection doesn’t have to be totally obvious to the reader. Some subplots, particularly when dealing with theme, shouldn’t be too clearly and simply connected to the main plot as far as avoiding writing that feels heavy-handed.

There are also a few common types of subplots to guide you, which comprise most subplots in the realm of fiction. The most common “sub-categories” are subplots intended to add conflict to the main storyline, and subplots intended to emphasize the main storyline, which either parallel or contrast with the primary plot and associated story elements. Parallel subplots, which in a sense mirror the main plot, are particularly good for developing themes. 

Subplots should be brought full circle, and feel as complete as the main plot.

Nobody likes an incomplete subplot. Oftentimes, readers become as invested in a subplot as they are in the primary storyline. For example, Ron and Hermione’s romance in the Harry Potter series…how would we have felt if it just kinda fizzled out several books in? If you’re going to write a subplot, plan its basic points and how it will be incorporated into the story before you begin writing. Make sure you know roughly where it’s going, and make sure the side-story arc doesn’t feel like a wild goose chase.

Romantic subplots are great and often VERY popular with readers. Because they’re so powerful, take extra care to use these storylines to your advantage.

Romance for its own sake is totally fine as a subplot, but to this end it should at the very least be used to develop the characters involved in addition to just being fun. Luckily, this is really easy to do. Just actively be thinking of what character information you wish to get across in writing the relationship. People reveal so much of themselves in their relationships, especially romantic ones. Romance can also be easily tied to themes and / or the plot of a story. For example, in The Great Gatsby, Gatsby’s doomed love for Daisy represents the futility of trying to return to the past, but also the beauty of continuing to dream. In The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates (a more recent favorite of mine), Hiram’s relationship with Sophia is not only a beautiful relationship that provides character development, or a reminder of the evil of slavery. It is also essential as a side story to the main plot of Hiram’s escape and subsequent experiences helping enslaved people escape on the underground railroad. It drives him, and in doing so drives the plot.

For tips on writing romance in fiction, check out this post. It can be tough to get right as far as making readers actually care about the relationship.

Subplots can and should be used to reveal backstory in a way that feels natural––and natural is key.

When writing fiction, one should in general be careful about infodumping, especially where backstory is concerned. Don’t give a character’s entire background in a single page, especially not if that character’s prior experiences are a major part of a subplot. Too much too soon is confusing, doesn’t read well, feels lazy, and makes for horrible pacing. If you have a subplot centered around a character’s trauma and however it affects the main plot, slowly unveil this trauma, showing not telling wherever possible.

Contrast subplots against the main plot as far as what drives the story arc.

If your main plot is heavily plot-centric (that sounds obvious, but basically if your story is not character or theme driven it would be plot-centric, as most non-literary fiction is), it can be good to include a subplot that is more focused on character or thematic development. This can help balance your story and improve elements of it which are not the main focus of the narrative. Many stories focused more on sequential events and action are lacking in strong characters, and character driven stories can easily feel slow or scattered. One remedy to this is to include subplots focused on developing underdeveloped parts of the story.

It’s okay if subplots are not completely clear until later in the story (just make sure they eventually make sense).

Many, many great stories include subplots which may feel like completely separate parallel plotlines until quite late in the story. They may even involve characters who do not appear to have any connection whatsoever. This can increase tension and make the story more interesting, because it’s generally considered a rule of fiction that if this is the setup to your story, the two (or more) plots will eventually converge. Readers will be curious to find out how. Don’t disappoint them by sloppily tying the two together at the last minute.

Bottom line—plan your subplots like you would your main plot, with the added consideration of giving them purpose and making this purpose clear, and doing so gracefully.