Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Subplots
I’ve touched on the subject of plots in the past, but lots of people have emailed asking to know more about them, so here’s everything you need to know about them:
What are they?
The first thing to know is that they’re not the enemy. The subplot is a secondary plot (think of it as a mini-plot) to the main story, an additional story strand that also runs parallel to the main story, or is interwoven with the narrative.
Subplots must always connect and relate to the main story. They play a supporting role to the main story. It’s no use having a subplot about characters that only briefly appear in your novel, because they won’t have been in the novel long enough for the reader to care about them. The same is true if you have a subplot about something that has absolutely nothing whatever to do with the story. It won’t make sense to the reader, and it won’t make sense to the story as a whole.
Why do they happen?
Subplots happen because of the main story, not because it might be a good idea to add in something that is totally unrelated, or you need to fill the story with extra unwanted padding. They should arise logically and organically from the main story, so try not to force them; otherwise you’ll end up with something that is contrived.
Sometimes they emerge naturally during writing, which could be anything from the situations the characters get into, the backstory, the characters, a flashback or even the theme(s).
Sometimes we know before we start the novel that there may be one or two subplots, we may have some ideas what they are.
What’s their purpose?
Subplots have many functions. Primarily they are there to maintain the reader’s interest and to also move the story forward by revealing either new characters or new information which is pertinent to the story.
They may be used to add additional obstacles and problems for the main character – the subplots generally involves extra stuff the protagonist has to see to and yet still be able to reach his or her goal by the end of the novel.
They also help with characterisation, allowing the reader to see the main character in a different way, with relationships and situations etc.
Another thing to consider with subplots is that they layer and help bring numerous elements together, collectively woven into the fabric of the main story. They enrich a novel with context and complexity.
Doing this will mean that the reader will then became part of the deepening story through because they are privy to new parallel storylines, whereas your main character may not. This can add suspense and tension.
Another reason writers use subplots is to allow the reader a break from the main thrust of the story, so they can breathe and reflect on what’s happened so far before returning back to the main thread.
Do I have to have one?
No, you don’t have to. There are no rules that say you need one, but it just helps the story overall if you do have one or two. They do enrich the story.
How many can I have?
Some stories have just one subplot others have two or three. Clever and complex novels may have up to five subplots. Again, there are no rules, just common sense.
Writers must realise that the more subplots they incorporate, however, the more complex the whole story gets and the more headaches it will cause trying to keep them from wildly unravelling into a big mess.
One to three subplots is more than adequate.
What Subplots should never do
- They should never be forced, never throw something into the story because you think the story “needs” it.
- They should never overwhelm or take over from the main story
- They should never lead away from the main plot and become lost in a sea of complexity
- They should never include stuff that has nothing to do with the main story
- They should never be about peripheral or ‘walk on’ characters that make no impact on the story arc.
- They should never be stand-alone stories – they have to have a connection to the main story.
- They should never be used as padding to fill your story out. If they don’t have purpose, don’t use them.
Remember to 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 questions that the subplot posed by being there in the first place.
There is nothing worse than following a subplot and not knowing what happens at the end!
Make sure that you tie up those loose ends.
- Subplots must connect to the main story.
- 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.
- There should ideally be no more than 2 - 3 subplots
Some people view subplots as difficult, others see them as a chore, when they're neither of these things. A subplot adds to the enjoyment of the story, the reader can become immersed in all the different threads you create, they will appreciate there is more to the story that first meets the eye.
They're not the enemy. Instead, use subplots to your advantage.
Next week: Self-publish or traditional?