How to Construct Subplots – Part 1

A subplot is an essential part of any novel. These little side stories add depth to the main story, and they help develop other characters beside the protagonist. They run parallel to the main plot; they are connected to it, but they should be constructed in a way that they never overwhelm the main story.
They are designed to maintain further interest within the story, so that the reader will never get bored, and they help give the overall story lots of variation and substance. They add extra layers and levels of complexity to the story. In other words, there’s plenty to keep the reader occupied. A subplot can involve any of the main characters – the protagonist, the antagonist or secondary characters, so some of the story is seen through their eyes.  They are all part of the main story, but they might also have their own stories that relate to the main story, so they might have different goals, different perspectives and different agendas and they will have different obstacles to overcome.
The thing about subplots is that they support the main plot.  So if you were to remove that subplot, the main plot wouldn’t collapse without it. At the same time, don’t overcomplicate the story with so many threads that it’s hard for the reader to keep track.
Subplots should be clear, not confusing.
Creating Subplots
It always starts with the main plot and characters. The main plot is always the main character’s story. But within that story there are other characters to consider. The antagonist is one – they have a story, too. Then there may be some important secondary characters to consider who may be involved with the hero or the villain, or may have their own agenda.
You then need to ask what the purpose of the subplot is. What will it achieve? Is it to help tell a different perspective to the story?  Is it to show important events that the reader wouldn’t otherwise be aware of? How does it relate to the main story?
Creating a subplot doesn’t necessary start at the beginning of the writing process. It can happen halfway through, or even at editing stage when the writer feels that a subplot may be necessary to help expand the main story. However they manifest, the writer should consider how important the subplot is to the main story, what is achieves and how it will be resolved before the end.
Let’s look at a simple example of a crime novel. It would have the following basic plot structure:
  • The protagonist, a world weary cop who’s never played by the rules, is brought in to help solve a crime similar to one that happened 20 years earlier and the suspect was never caught. His story is the main plot.
  • The antagonist is the main suspect, a high-profile politician who may or may not be guilty. He was suspected 20 years ago of a similar crime. But he has friends in high places. This is a subplot.
  • The cop falls for the antagonist’s ex-wife, but he can’t be entirely sure whether to trust her or use her to his advantage. This is another subplot.
In this story, the antagonist becomes the main suspect, but with few clues and high profile friends to shield him, he knows he will get away with it, which aggravates the protagonist. This subplot will interact with the main plot and converge at the end.
The protagonist falls for the suspect’s ex-wife, thus complicating matters. But can he trust her? And could he use her to his advantage, putting the relationship at risk? This subplot will weave in and out of the main story and resolve at the end.
Subplots like this can weave through the main story. Writers do this by starting new chapters from the character’s viewpoint. Placed correctly, they should help enhance the story. This can be a trial by error sometimes and can involve some editing and switching around – that’s perfectly normal. But the end result is that these ‘subplot’ chapters carefully interspersed within the main chapters, help tell the full story and often converge at the end to complete the story arc.
Well-crafted subplots weave in and out of the main plot and often interact with the main plot for some time before they are resolved. Let’s look at another example in the thriller genre:
  • The protagonist is a hard-working successful businessman who seems to have the perfect family and home, but he hides a secret. This is the main plot.
  • A stranger from the past turns up – the antagonist – who knows of the protagonist’s dark secret and threatens to shatter his perfect family life. This is a subplot.
  • The wife begins to suspect her husband isn’t all he seems and confides her fears in her best friend, who has never liked the husband. This is a subplot.
  • The eldest daughter becomes embroiled with the stranger when he takes a liking to her, thus complicating a delicate situation. This is a subplot.
It’s clear here that the antagonist is out to cause the main character trouble. It’s payback for something that happened in the past. His motivation is to destroy his former friend’s life in any way he can. This subplot will interact with the main plot and converge at the end.
The protagonist’s wife grows suspicious of her husband’s behaviour and begins to think that the man she married isn’t the ‘perfect’ guy after all. She turns to her best friend for support, but she has never liked the husband and sees an opportunity to have a dig and force them apart. This subplot will weave in and out of the main story from time to time before being resolved at the end.
The protagonist’s teenage daughter is charmed by the antagonist, and he uses her as leverage, which causes conflict within the family, especially with her father. This subplot will pop in and out of the main story from time to time until it’s resolved.
You can see here how the subplots could interact with the main plot. And by using new chapters or different character perspectives, writers can expand extra story threads like these to help tell the full story without overcomplicating things.
But what about first person stories? Are they possible? The answer is yes and in Part 2 we’ll look at how to approach subplots for first person stories.
Next week: How to Construct Subplots - Part 2


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