The Plot Thickens: Using Subplots

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The What?

Subplot is a supporting story for the main plot in a novel, play or movie. The main story arc in a novel is what the subplot orbits around. Subplots may involve characters other than the main protagonist and antagonist. And there is generally an important connection between a subplot and the main plot, either thematically, in setting, through characters, or because the action in the subplot affects aspect of the main plot.

Differences between plot and subplot:

  • Subplots take up less of the story
  • Happen to and because of supporting characters
  • Are often quicker and easier to resolve
  • Have less impact.
  • Can also be referred to as “Story B,” “Story C,” and so on in screenwriting

The Why?

Subplots help flesh out a novel. They develop characters, themes, and settings and add variety to the story. Subplots serve multiple plot purposes, including the following:

  • Keep cast and events interesting.
  • Support core plot themeswith secondary examples and illustrations.
  • Introduce complications that affect the main story line and increase tension.
  • Advance your story in satisfying increments.
  • Unleash transformative forces on your main characters: growth or corruption, gain or loss.
  • Reveal information to your main characters or to the reader.
  • Pivot your action, provide twists.
  • Speed up or slow down your story’s pace.
  • Induce mood: menace, comedy, pathos, triumph.
  • Patch holes and solve problems with your main plot.
  • Insert or challenge a moral lesson.

The How?

The first step to using subplots is to determine the best subplot for your story (see examples here). The type you choose will depend on your main story line. It should be relevant to the story. Ask yourself: What do I want to accomplish with this subplot? What do I need? What do I want? What would be fun to work with?

Common types of subplots include:

  • Romantic subplots: Romantic tension between your main character and a supporting character(s) adds suspense.
  • Conflict subplots: Adds conflict between characters, and background and depth to cast.
  • Expository subplots: show the cause and effect of how something came to be.

Once you have determined the appropriate subplot, use the subplot to:

  1. Develop main plot: The best subplot ideas add intrigue and breadth to your story’s cast and world, while also driving the main plot.
  2. Increase tension: Subplots are great for maintaining narrative tension. Mysteries that create an urgent need for resolution using subplots dramatically increase suspense.
  3. Reveal characters: Subplots provide opportunities to reveal characters’ characteristics and attributes that breath life into the cast, including flaws, strengths, as well as goals and motivations. In addition, subplot provides characters more important and meaningful parts to play than comic relief or conniving villains. 
  4. Weave in backstory seamlessly: Done well, subplots are a great way to reveal backstory for character development, to drive the main plot and build tension.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with subplots to bolster your story. Like anything else with writing, inspiration is lurking behind every nook and cranny.

Do you have a topic you would like us to cover? Let us know about your suggestion. 

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About Author

IDABEL ALLEN is the author of Headshots, Cursed! My Devastatingly Brilliant Campaign to Save the Chigg and Rooted: A Washed in the Blood Tale. When not burrowing in the written word, Idabel is generally up to no good with her family, dogs, and herd of antagonistic cows.

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