I’m often asked by new writers how subplots should evolve. Some writers find subplots difficult to get to grips while others are put off trying to attempt them, but subplots are really simple tools for giving your novel an extra dimension and are quite easy to construct. To understand how to do that, a writer needs to first understand the function of a subplot.
The subplot is a secondary, or tertiary, plot to the main thrust of the novel. If you imagine the main storyline as a tree trunk, you can have several branches of connected stories – the subplots. All these connect to the main story, the tree trunk. These connecting stories help to give texture and dimension to a novel; they give the reader something more than a one-dimensional, primary story.
Your subplots must always connect and relate to the main story. They are there to lend support and substance to your main plot. They are also there to maintain the reader’s interest.
Another thing to consider with subplots is that they should happen because of the main story, not because you think it’s a good idea to digress and concentrate on something that is totally unrelated. This will only confuse readers and detract from the story altogether. Don’t fall into the trap of making up an unnecessary subplot because you think the story needs it, because invariably your story doesn’t. Remember, they should evolve naturally from the main plot.
(On the whole, short stories and novellas don’t have subplots because of brevity.)
When do you use a subplot?
It all depends on your story. Most subplots appear quite early novels, as new characters and situations unfold. A subplot can happen because you introduce a new character further along in the story, or perhaps there is a situation that conflicts with the main character’s goal which forces a different action from them. Perhaps there is a love interest, perhaps the opposite. Perhaps there is a shadowy character waiting in the wings, someone relevant to your main character, or perhaps something in your main character’s past is important, and this is told in flashback... all of these are subplots. Ideally – although not always – they should create conflict with your main character to add greater depth to the overall story.
Subplots are not always apparent when you start writing your story. It may be they start to emerge as the story matures and develops, or it may be you have a clear indication of a subplot from the start. Each writer is different in that sense. There is no right or wrong way. They should arise naturally from the main story, so try not to force them; otherwise, you’ll end up with something that is contrived and not worth reading.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate a subplot is to take a look at a famous novel. Let’s look at Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
In this story, Scout, the main character, and her brother Jem, live with their father, Atticus Finch, in their town in Alabama. It follows a period of their lives during the Great Depression as Atticus, a lawyer, agrees to defend a local black man, Tom Robinson, for the rape of a white woman. It is set against a backdrop of prejudice and racism. This is the main plot.
During the summer, a boy named Dill comes to stay with his aunt and becomes friends with Scout and Jem, but Dill is also a catalyst for their interest in the spooky house down the road, which belongs to the mysterious Boo Radley. Few people have seen Boo. The children are equally fascinated and scared of him. He leaves them little gifts in the hollow of a tree. This is an indication that Boo is not the terrible person that we first imagine, and he will play a pivotal role at the end of the story. This is a subplot.
The townsfolk turn against Atticus and his family for defending Tom Robinson, so Scout feels she must defend her father against the name-calling at school, and takes to fighting with the school kids who mock her father. This is also a subplot.
Despite the truth of Tom Robinson’s innocence and Atticus demonstrating that Mayella Ewell, the supposed victim, and her father Bob Ewell, the local drunk, were lying about the whole thing, the court convicts him. Robinson is driven to try to escape, but is shot and killed. Ewell plagues the Robinson family. There is tension between him and Atticus. Their strained relationship is a subplot.
The climax of the story leads Ewell to drunkenly attack Scout and Jem as they walk back from a Halloween party. Jem is beaten and his arm is broken. A mysterious shadow steps in to save the children from harm and takes Jem home. Scout follows, realising it is Boo Radley. Boo has killed Bob Ewell. The Sheriff decides that far from prosecuting Boo, Ewell drunkenly fell on his own knife. Scout walks Boo to his house. At last Scout realises the importance of ‘walking in another’s shoes’ and seeing life from other people’s perspectives, rather than judging them with prejudice, as they had done so with Boo.
There are several subplots running parallel to the main story, all of which help to round off the whole thing quite effectively. Layering a story this way with subplots helps bring numerous elements together, collectively woven into the fabric of the main story. Harper Lee does this so well, taking the children’s own prejudices and setting them against the racism and prejudice of the Deep South, the tensions of white and black people, the truth against deceit and honour and integrity in the face of diversity.
How do you add subplots to the story?
How you do it really depends on how you write, your style, but the best way is to change the viewpoint your characters by alternating your scenes or chapters. Doing this will mean that the reader will then became part of the deepening story through the subplots because they are privy to new parallel storylines, whereas your main character may not. This can add suspense and tension. Different character viewpoints will allow you to explore different connected storylines, until eventually they all connect in the final chapter. This technique is also a good way of introducing secondary characters.
Resolve All Subplots
The most important thing you need to do with any subplot is to resolve it by the end of the novel, otherwise you will leave your reader wondering what happened to the hero’s love interest, or what became of the shadowy figure, or the conflict you may have created with different characters. There is nothing worse than following a subplot and not knowing what happens at the end!
As with any novel, write, experiment and create and see what comes of it.
• Subplots must connect to the main story (plot).
• Subplots must happen for a reason and make sense together with the main story.
• Subplots should move the story forward. They should enrich, support and deepen the overall story.
• Subplots should reveal information about the main story, the situation or characters, which readers should become privy.
• Subplots should keep your reader interested.
• Subplots must always be resolved.
Next week: Tools for planning a novel