In the grand tradition of Writer’s Block Party, this week’s post is about a topic that I’m in the midst of trying to master for myself. And what better way to think through a writing concept than to write about it? We have talked a lot about plotting before–what is plot, how we structure it, methods for how to plot–but one thing we haven’t done an in-depth post on is subplots.
For my part, subplots are not something I’ve had to super consciously think about while writing the Age of Darkness series. While there are subplots in my books, the challenge of writing subplots was sort of subsumed in the multiple POV structure. Now that I’m exploring some new projects, I’m starting to think more specifically about subplots, how they function, and how to balance them in a narrative.
First, let’s talk about why we need subplots and what function they serve in a story. There are lots of different reasons you might want to include a subplot, and I doubt I could cover them all, so I’m just going to outline some basic functions subplots can serve in your narrative. Often, subplots will serve more than one of these functions–the best subplots can pull double or triple duty.
Some subplots can serve as an additional way to develop your characters. While your main plot should be driven by the arc of your character, a subplot can deepen or complicate this main character arc. An example of this is a romantic subplot. Well-written romantic subplots can help deepen a character arc, and create an additional avenue for a character to confront their deeply held beliefs and change.
Or you might have a subplot that helps you develop one or more secondary characters. While the main plot will be driven by your main character’s arc, a subplot might focus more on the arc of a side character, romantic interest, or even an antagonist. Ideally, this subplot might mirror or contrast with your main character’s arc, thus relating back to the core narrative. In that case, a subplot might serve the dual function of developing a secondary character and paralleling, emphasizing, or contrasting the main theme or message of the book.
In science fiction and fantasy books, it’s common for subplots to serve as a way to show various aspects of the world that otherwise might not be explored in the course of the main plot. For example, there are numerous fantasy books where the protagonist undergoes some kind of training or learning about magic, which gives the reader a greater insight into how magic functions in the world. Or perhaps your book is a court intrigue, and a subplot might involve the emissary of a neighboring kingdom, thus showing how the main politics of the court might affect the world on a larger scale.
Subplots can also be used to reveal or explore any other type of information, such as a character’s backstory or a particular historical event that has some significance to the main plot or the protagonist. Subplots can help convey and reveal information in a much more dynamic and exciting way than by simply dumping that information on the reader. And by parcelling out that information through the vehicle of a subplot, you can create exciting reveals and twists with dire consequences for your protagonist.
Subplots are a fantastic way to raise the stakes in your story. They can create additional obstacles, give your character secondary and tertiary goals, and be an excellent playground for complicating and intensifying the main conflict. Subplots can suddenly throw a wrench in your character’s main goal, just when they thought they might finally achieve it. Or they might make your character’s primary goal even more important. For example, in the expertly plotted movie Knives Out (SPOILERS AHEAD SO IF YOU HAVENT SEEN IT GO DO THAT RIGHT NOW), the protagonist Marta’s main goal is to keep from getting caught for the accidental death of her friend and employer, the rich patriarch Harlan Thromby. One of the subplots in the movie involves the reading of Harlan’s will to his children and grandchildren. They find out that he’s left everything to Marta. Not only does this make it even more crucial that Marta avoid getting caught, it also means that the entire family turns on her and begins suspecting her of killing their patriarch. An absolutely brilliant use of subplot to raise the stakes on an already intense story.
Another important function that subplots serve is to vary and control the pacing of the book. By including several different threads for your character to follow, you can use subplots to break up developments in the main plot, or add intensity and urgency. By weaving several different plot threads together, you can create more variety within your narrative–for instance, by alternating a sweet, romantic scene with an intense, blood-pounding action sequence. Or, in contrast, you could use a subplot to create a sudden reversal for your character, ramping up the pacing even further. Subplots give you lots of different options in terms of varying the emotional beats and mood of the story.
Balancing Subplots and Main Plot
Now that we’ve gone over some of the basic functions of subplots, let’s dive deeper into how to weave subplots in with the main plot. I’m always frustrated by books that just plop subplots in with seemingly no rhyme or reason to them–they can feel clunky, unnecessary, and ultimately only serve to slow down the book. My feeling is that a subplot that doesn’t help advance the main plot should probably be cut or rethought.
There are numerous ways a subplot can advance the main plot. Maybe it provides a crucial piece of information to the central mystery. Or the conflict of a sublot ends spirals into the main conflict, raising the stakes even further (for example, ). Or a decision made in response to a subplot has dire consequences for the main plot. Subplots are a vehicle to weave pieces of information and additional conflicts that can then explode into the main plot in an exciting way.
So our next question might be where do subplots belong in the book? If you’re following a standard plot structure, most of your subplots will probably kick into gear after the first act break–ie once your protagonist has been set on their main journey. But depending on what you want your subplot to accomplish, you may start it or at least hint at it even earlier than that–for instance, by having your protagonist encounter their love interest earlier on, or introducing a concept that comes back a little later as a proper subplot. The main thing is that you don’t want to overburden your first act with subplot threads that may leave your readers wondering what the book is actually about.
Once your subplot has branched out from the main plot, it may continue until the very end of the book, or it may weave back into the main plot at another significant point. For example, maybe you have a subplot about the protagonist is trying to figure out where their best friend keeps disappearing too–and then at a crucial moment of the plot, it’s revealed that the best friend has been working with the main villain the whole time!
Subplots can also be structured such that they are self-contained, and act more as side quests than interwoven storylines. These “side quest” subplots can be just a few chapters long, and may serve reveal a piece of information, develop a particular relationship further, or any number of other things. How you decide to structure and place your subplot all depends on what role you want it to play in the main narrative.
Subplots are an extremely flexible aspect of plotting. Depending on the story you’re trying to tell, you might have just a few subplots, or many of them. They can serve a variety of functions in the narrative, and give you lots of opportunities to create twists, deepen character arcs, and reveal information that pertains to the main plotline. If subplots are something you struggle with, or simply something you’re interested in analyzing further, I hope this overview will help you go forward and create even more juicy, tension-raising, and interesting subplots for your books!