People new to novel writing sometimes experience sticker shock when they realize how many words they’ll need to dedicate to one story. If you’ve cut your teeth on short stories, the idea of writing 80,000-100,000 words on a single project can feel overwhelming.
Not to worry, though. Unlike short fiction, which leaves little room for multiple settings or plot tangents, novels tell more than a single story. Subplots branch off the main thread and intertwine to create a rich, multi-layered plot. As you introduce the settings, events, and secondary characters for these subplots, you’ll begin to see why novels require so many words.
These secondary characters and plotlines fill a critical role in your book. They may add entertainment value and word count, but don’t make that their first or only job. Subplots exist to serve your central plot and theme.
Subplots are a tool — use them wisely.
Your novel’s subplots give you powerful tools to deepen your main storyline. They add variety, which helps you reveal different facets of characters’ backstories, relationships, or personalities. And to achieve contrast — that essential spice of good storytelling — you probably need to show your protagonist interacting with a few separate groups of people. Most of us behave differently with our mothers versus our colleagues versus our friends. A relatable character will, too.
Subplots may also drive character development that supports your main plot. A child’s struggles in school may inspire a character to reflect on their own upbringing. A big deadline at the office might open the door to romantic tension when two characters spend long hours together. That romantic subplot may dial up the tension between one of those characters and their spouse. Readers benefit from seeing how your characters react to challenges, but your characters also stand to learn a lot about themselves. This knowledge will add more depth and punch to your story’s climax.
Novels also require careful attention to pacing. Subplots give you a release valve. Sometimes readers need a breather after an intense scene. Television shows illustrate this technique especially well: at the height of tension, the scene will often cut to a secondary storyline. This technique will keep your readers turning the pages without emotionally exhausting them.
Subplots need to connect to the rest of the story.
As you fill out your manuscript with these secondary scenes, keep them connected to the heart of your story. While not every scene needs to advance the central plot, it should have a clear purpose for adding words to the page.
Sometimes a subplot will feel like a tangent — and not in a good way. Every novelist in my critique group has written one at some point: a subplot we loved, but everyone else told us we needed to cut. If a savvy beta reader asks why a subplot is taking up space in your novel, make sure you have a good answer. Even if a storyline exists independent from the main storyline, it should still support that plot and theme.
Readers expect sidetracks and hints to go somewhere. These elements need to feel relevant by the end of the book. We’ve all read a book with a subplot that seemed like it existed for the author’s own entertainment — or worse, their soapbox. Avoid doing anything that will make readers feel cheated.
Get creative with subplots as you write your first draft. Show your characters under a variety of conditions to let readers get to know them. Find interesting ways to get your protagonist from Point A to Point B in your story. Reinforce your underlying theme with a meaningful subplot. Just make sure that as you revise, you enlist the help of a trusted beta reader. By the time you finish your final draft, every scene should come together into a coherent whole.