Subplots may not be what immediately comes to mind when you come up with an idea for a novel, but as you get deeper into the writing process, it will become clear why they are such an important piece of storytelling. No matter how compelling your main plot is, it may lack substance without any subplots to enhance the story and will leave your readers feeling underwhelmed if you provide them with nothing else to pique their interest.

Let’s be honest—writing subplots can be a challenge for both new and seasoned writers. But there’s good news: you are NOT alone! So many writers find it difficult to weave their subplots into their story organically or even struggle to determine exactly what their subplots are doing for their story overall. And it’s easy to see why. After all, subplots are a type of plot—who ever claimed balancing multiple plotlines was easy?

But here’s where the best news comes in: despite the challenge, managing subplots is, well, manageable! Read on for a deeper exploration of subplots and tips on writing subplots into your novel! Because you CAN do this.

What is a Subplot?

First thing first: a subplot is a secondary plot that supports your main plot. In other words, a subplot is a smaller plotline, or secondary conflict, within your novel that will have an effect on the main story taking place.

Regardless of the scope and length of your story, it is important to include at least one or two subplots to make your novel more engaging to readers. You don’t want them feeling burned out by your main plot with nothing else to interest them.

Luckily for you, while they can be challenging to get right on the first try, they can be great tools for exploring your characters or world on a deeper level and can even be one of the most enjoyable parts of the writing process.

Types of Subplots

So, what kinds of subplots can you incorporate into your story? Think of your favorite novels, and you’ll be pleased to see that subplots come in a wide variety of types. That leaves you a ton of room to get creative when determining which types of subplots will work best in your novel!

The most common types of subplots are centered around friendship, romance, family, mentorship, sibling rivalry, career or financial struggles, or mysteries that connect to the main plot. As you can see, you have lots of options to choose from!

But how do you choose? Sometimes, it’s best to start writing your novel first with just your main plot in mind and then notice where you start writing subplots into the story naturally. This can help determine which types of subplots are best for your story. Or maybe it would work best for you to craft your subplots before you get too deep into the writing process and keep them in mind as you go. Either way, don’t worry if you find that your main plot is changing as you write in your subplots—that’s what subplots are supposed to do! While your main plot shouldn’t necessarily be unrecognizable by the time you’ve considered your subplots, slight deviations or enhancements are actually a good thing because it means your subplots are indeed having an effect on your novel’s outcome.

Positive and Negative Subplots

Apart from which type of subplots you end up weaving into your story, it is also important to be aware of whether these subplots are positive or negative. Any type of subplot can be positive or negative; it just depends on how it affects your characters or your main plot. Positive subplots bring your character closer to solving the main conflict, while negative subplots bring your character farther away from solving the main conflict.

Let’s take the romantic subplot, for example. Say your main character’s love interest helps her to understand what it is she really needs and because of this, she is able to realign and achieve her goals. As you can see, this would help advance the main plot (which is typically centered around the main character’s goals and motivations) through the two characters’ relationship. Thus, this is a positive subplot.

On the other hand, let’s say the main character’s love interest enables your character to focus on what she wants instead of what she needs, diverting her attention from her true mission. Naturally, this would get in the way of her goals and regress the main plot; therefore, this is a negative subplot. Keep in mind that in order for your negative subplots to properly explore your characters or theme, it is important that your main character gets back on track before the final act of your story. For example, maybe she realizes that her love interest is distracting her from what it is she needs to accomplish and ends the relationship so that she can resume focusing on achieving her true goal.

The point to remember: Whether your subplots are positive or negative, it’s important that they affect the plot in a meaningful way.

How Can Subplots Enhance Your Story?

Subplots aren’t merely secondary plots that add more content to your novel; they’re secondary plots that enhance your story, whether that’s by exploring your characters, theme, or world more deeply. Below are the most common ways that subplots can enhance your story.

Character Depth

Fleshing out your characters is important when it comes to making your story interesting and realistic to your audience, but most of the time, it’s impossible for just one plotline—your main plotline—to capture your main character’s full personality. But if you don’t want to cut from your story all the traits and quirks you’ve given them to make them unique and likable, subplots provide the opportunity to give your readers the chance to get to know your characters as well as you do!

Subplots are a great tool for exploring aspects of your main character that aren’t on display when it comes to the main plot. Say your story is a fantasy story, and your character is saving his world: naturally, his heroic side will be the focus of the bulk of your story. But if you want your character to be more well-rounded, you can introduce, say, a friendship subplot in which this friend brings out his caring and playful side. This way, you’ve given your main character more layers to their personality, making your readers care more, and introduced a side character whose relationship with the main character can affect the main plot.

 Relationships

So you’ve created a cast of characters you love. But what if you realize while writing that some of these characters don’t fit into the main plot? You love their connections to your main character, but you don’t want their role in your story to seem forced… You don’t want to cut them from your novel, either. What should you do? Introduce a subplot!

Exploring your main character’s relationships with other characters in your novel via subplots will give your characters more depth and your story more substance. It can also be a great way to tie in side characters to your main plot and create momentum in your central conflict.

Here’s what I mean: let’s say the genre of your story is romance. Of course, the main plot will center around your main character and their love interest as they overcome obstacles that are getting in the way of their romance. But if you love the family dynamic you’ve created for your main character, you can still include, for example, his sister and parents in a family subplot. Just make sure they have some type of connection to the main plot (maybe his family doesn’t approve of his love interest at first, etc.) so that they don’t come across as excess content that serves no purpose in your story. Remember, your subplots are there to support your main plot.

 Realism

If you are writing a fantasy or science fiction novel, not everything in your story is going to be realistic. That’s okay, of course, but this means you’ll want to give your readers something to connect with. This is where subplots can be a great asset. As we already discussed, subplots can explore your characters and their relationships with each other, which will provide a sense of realism to your novel: add a sibling rivalry or friendship subplot into a story about werewolves, and it suddenly becomes more real because it’s something your readers can relate to. As you may know, having some sense of realism is an important aspect in works of fiction because it enables your audience to better connect with the story. So use your subplots with intention since they give you the opportunity to ground your novel in reality!

A Deeper Meaning

Every good story has a message or theme. What message are you trying to convey to your audience? If you consider this question while writing subplots into your story, you can craft your subplots to center around your theme accordingly and use them to really drive it home. Let’s say you’re trying to convey a coming-of-age theme. Your subplots could evoke this message as well. Maybe your main character’s relationship with his mother becomes strained as he starts to pull away from parental needs, and by the end of the novel, his mother comes to accept that her son is growing up. Thus, your subplot reinforces your novel’s theme and helps provoke a deeper meaning for your readers.

Tips for Writing Subplots

So now you have a better understanding of subplots: you know what they are and how they can enhance your story. But what about actually writing subplots into your novel? I mentioned before that this can be a challenging task, but now that you have a better understanding of subplots, hopefully, you feel more confident about your ability. Use these tips below to make writing subplots easier!

Tip #1: Connect Subplots to the Main Plot

We’ve already covered this in other sections, but it is perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when writing subplots. Subplots are meant to add to your main plot; they are not merely excess content in your novel. Readers should never feel like subplots are only in your story to reach a higher page count or give background information to make your story seem more fleshed out.

Furthermore, subplots should never be used for you, as the author, to go on a tangent. If you find yourself more drawn to an aspect of your story that is not the main plot, consider switching gears and writing about what you’re more drawn to instead. Subplots should NOT be the main hook.

There’s a simple way to test if your subplots do indeed connect to your main plot. Just imagine your story without them! If nothing in your story changes after you’ve removed your subplots, then you know you’ve messed up (oops—time to try again!). This isn’t to say that taking out your subplots would necessarily change the entire trajectory of your novel, but there should generally be some kind of noticeable difference if you were to omit them.

Tip #2: Have A Limit

Don’t overdo it. I know you’re really excited about writing subplots after having read all about them (you better be!), but seriously, there’s a limit in every novel. A few subplots are perfectly okay, but if your story has fifteen plotlines to follow, it’s going to get confusing both to you as the author and to your readers. You don’t want to leave your audience feeling overwhelmed with the amount of content you’re trying to have them process.

For example, if you’re writing a mystery novel, it may be best to leave the detective’s relationship with her son, well, a mystery. See what I mean? Try to keep your subplots relevant to your main plot and it’ll be a lot easier to avoid littering your novel with too much unnecessary information. Basically, if it doesn’t have any relation to your main plot, don’t try to make an entire subplot out of it. You can briefly mention that the detective cares for her only son—such details are indeed important when it comes to characterization—but your readers will be too busy wondering about the mystery at hand to care about how she planned her son’s eighth birthday party.

 Tip #3 Resolve Your Subplots

This may sound silly to say, but it can sometimes be easy not to give our subplots proper resolutions when we’re preoccupied with trying to nail our main plot’s final act. Of course, resolving your main plot is highly important, but if you don’t resolve your subplots, too, it’ll look like you abandoned or forgot about them while writing… yikes. So don’t do that! Whether you resolve your subplots in the middle or the end of your story, it’s important to wrap up all plotlines, no matter how minor they seem, so that you have no loose threads that your readers will be left wondering about after they’ve finished the book. This way, everything will seem properly concluded, and the end of your story will be much neater.

The exception to this is if you’re planning for your novel to have a sequel or be the start of a series. In this case, because the overarching plot of your series isn’t finished, it’s not necessary that subplots get entirely wrapped up in each book. It can be super entertaining watching a conflict between two siblings unfold over the course of multiple novels or watching a romance slowly blossom so that by the end of the series, the moment when they reveal their feelings for one another pays off extra well!

Tip #4: Let the Narrative Flow

There’s no doubt that subplots can be great tools for taking breaks from a story’s main plot. But while this does help ensure that your audience won’t get burned out from only reading about your main plot, it’s important that you’re not spacing subplot-focused scenes solely with this in mind. Sure, this can be a good strategy sometimes, but it will become a noticeable pattern if you do this too much. Besides, your subplots aren’t merely supposed to be filler content in between main-plot-based scenes.

The best way to avoid this mistake is to simply let the narrative flow naturally. Don’t force a pattern when it comes to writing subplots; instead, allow your scenes to unfold in a sequence that makes the most sense for the story you are trying to tell. When plotting out your novel, it may seem appealing to have a sequence such as:

Main plot  Subplot 1  Main plot  Subplot 2  Main plot  Subplot 1  Main plot  Subplot 2

As much as this may seem to make sense while plotting, it may not actually make sense narratively, so you don’t want to force such a pattern. If you do this, your sequencing may feel formulaic, and your readers will be able to predict what kind of scene they are getting next. Where’s the suspense in that?

There’s nothing wrong with having some downtime in your novel to focus on your subplots or having lots of uninterrupted action of the main plot happen for a few chapters. Indeed, your narrative sequence may resemble something more like this:

Main plot  Subplot 2  Subplot 1  Main plot  Main plot  Subplot 1  Main plot  Subplot 2

Allowing your story to veer from a set pattern will allow your story to flow more naturally and will provide more suspense for your readers!

Conclusion

Now that you’ve developed a deeper understanding of subplots, how they can enhance your story, and how to work them into your novel, I hope you have more confidence in your novel-writing journey! Writing subplots isn’t always easy, but with the right knowledge, it becomes a much more attainable—and enjoyable—task. So get your pen (or keyboard) in front of you and put your new knowledge to the test! Happy writing!

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