Are You Scared of Subplots?
The best writers can develop subplots masterfully, fitting them seamlessly into the main plot. If you’re not reading carefully, you won’t even realize they’re there.
That’s the magic of subplots: they’re small and sneaky and utterly irresistible.
But let me tell you a secret. I balk when it comes to subplots! It’s hard enough to keep a main plotline strong and steady in a novel—and yet, one plotline isn’t enough. Unless you’re writing a short story, you want readers to care about multiple layers of conflict in your fiction.
Really, you want them to worry. Worrying about your characters keeps readers invested. You want them to worry about your characters’ home lives, about their work or school lives, about their relationships with their friends and family members. In other words, about everything.
And that’s where subplots come in. They are, by nature, the “everything” you want your reader to worry about. They’re small-scale plots that concern secondary characters, minor events, and even objects.
Your main plot is the central thread of your novel. It outlines your protagonist’s desire and the driving force of your story. In contrast, subplots are storylines that hum beneath the main plot, adding tension, intrigue, and depth to your novel. Without strong subplots to support it, your plot will collapse.
So even though I’m scared of subplots, I’ve had to come to terms with them. As in, my literary agent makes me face them head-on every time she hands back a marked-up draft of my manuscript.
I’m eternally grateful to her for that, because each time I revise with special attention to my subplots, my stories shine. I want your story to shine, too! So I’ll share what I’ve learned about subplots over the years.
You Have to Meet Subplots Face to Face
If you’re anything like me, you avoid things that scare you. But subplots get less scary the closer you look at them.
Let’s look at an example from someone whose talent I only wish I possessed: Robin Oliveirra. Her stunning historical novel Winter Sisters kept me up all night when I read it, because I could not close my eyes until I finished the last sentence.
In the first scene, a milliner named Bonnie ruminates about the treasures in her life: her two healthy daughters. Her third “surrogate” daughter, Elizabeth, is the child of her now-deceased friend. And Elizabeth isn’t doing too well.
Oliveirra writes, “Bonnie was worried about her. Lately, Elizabeth’s letters had confided great sadness” (6). After highlighting this worry, Oliveirra quickly moves on to bigger plot points.
Before the end of the first chapter, a blizzard descends upon Albany. When the sun rises the next morning, Bonnie and her husband are dead and their two girls are missing.
Despite the staggering loss, Elizabeth gets another quick mention as William and Mary Stipp, dear friends of Bonnie and the girls, plan a search: “Lately, [William had] grown worried about their niece, Elizabeth, who had written to him every week from Paris, but whose letters had recently carried a vague, distant tone” (17).
In this first chapter of her novel, Oliveirra not only introduces the central desire of her main plot—find the girls, alive—but she also gets readers worried about Elizabeth.
That worry retreats to the edges of a reader’s mind amid the greater fear about what might’ve happened to the two sisters, but it’s there. And it’s important. As the book goes on, readers find out that Elizabeth’s heartbreak is a crucial subplot, a thread winding tightly around the spool of the main plot—Emma and Claire’s wrenching story. One cannot exist without the other.
Oliveirra crafts additional subplots, but the Elizabeth subplot contributes most deeply to her story’s emotional resolution. And she starts putting it together from the novel’s first pages!
You can do the same thing. To meet your subplots face to face from the start, take the following steps. I’m going to do them with you, as I develop subplots in my current work-in-progress (WIP).
Find One Subplot at a Time
Do you have a story (or an outline) all written and thought out? I do, too. Mine’s a middle-grade mystery set in Alaska. Now it’s time to find a subplot—just one, to start with—that lends the story support.
First, condense the gist of the main plot into a couple of sentences. (This is also called a logline and is a helpful exercise for anyone writing a novel.)
I’m a visual learner who likes to see things all organized and laid out neatly, so I title these sentences “Main Plot.” That way, I know what my first subplot isn’t.
Now, scan your draft, especially the early chapters. Is there a secondary character (like Elizabeth) who’s trying to show you that her story is important? Or maybe there’s a hiccup or burst of news in your main character’s day that--you know in the back of your mind--wants to be a subplot, but does not feel robust enough yet?
For my novel, I looked at the first couple of chapters that I’ve drafted. An animal trap makes an appearance early on. The protagonist lies about the trap to two different significant characters, which makes me feel that the trap—and what the kids did with it—might develop into an important subplot.
So, I wrote these thoughts down and labeled them “Subplot 1 Ideas.” Go ahead and try this, too.
Remember to go with your instincts when you’re looking for a subplot. Often the seeds of subplots are already in your draft or outline. It’s up to you to find them, water them, and make them bloom.
Develop Your Subplot
If you have a full manuscript written, start scanning for places where your idea for Subplot 1 is already woven in.
It will probably be broken in places, and that’s okay in a first draft. What we’re working on is putting those missing pieces into the thread and making it a strong, unbroken line.
If you don’t have a full manuscript—which, ahem, I do not yet, for this WIP—then look to your outline. Where might Subplot 1 strengthen the main plot?
It helped me to draw a simple line for the main plot and another for Subplot 1, like this:
This visual keeps the main plot and Subplot 1 distinct and organized. You can jot down the important events of the main plot on a line, like I did, and then do the same for Subplot 1.
When the two lines are together, you can see where Subplot 1’s hot spots align with the main plot. This helps you make sure that you’re keeping Subplot 1 relevant and supportive to the main plot—while also giving it its own strong thread.
Keep plotting the lines until you’ve got a good idea of what Subplot 1 is telling you. Then you can fine-tune it and work it into your draft, whether it's completed or is in its early stages.
Make It Bloom
Now that we’ve got one sturdy subplot outlined, it’s time to make it bloom.
According to one of my fellow alums from Vermont College of Fine Arts, Chelsea Sutcliffe, subplots should impact the story by “deepening character, increasing tension or stakes, [and] developing [the] theme” (Sutcliffe) of a novel.
I’ll add that a strong subplot will also magnify the emotional stakes of your novel, as Robin Oliveirra’s Elizabeth subplot does in Winter Sisters.
That’s four things that Subplot 1 must do. (And Subplot 2, and Subplot 3. You get the idea.)
- Deepen character
- Increase tension or stakes
- Develop theme
- Magnify emotion
Here’s where you take each element and brainstorm how your subplot will achieve each of the four goals. I’ve started to do this with the first item on the list.
As you can see from the illustration, I’ve figured out that in my novel, Subplot 1—about animal traps—will force the protagonist and her friends to figure out what their own views are on a highly controversial subject: wolf trapping in Alaska.
This is central to the mystery, which means I’ll be able to make lots of notes on how the trapping subplot increases tension, develops theme, and magnifies emotion in my novel.
Rinse and Repeat
Proceed to find, develop, and chart the remaining subplots until you have brainstormed all four ways that each subplot can enrich your story.
Having done that, you’ll have come face to face with subplots. You’ll also have worked to develop them and make sure they have what it takes to bloom.
Now You’re Ready to Develop Subplots like a Pro
Doing this exercise along with you has helped me narrow the focus of my WIP. Now I’ll go back and find one or two additional subplot seeds and repeat the process with them. With a couple of strong subplots, my main plot will be compelling and supported. If the subplots help my book turn out even half as emotionally resonant as Winter Sisters, I’ll be overjoyed.
I’m excited to see what I discover as I go forward. And I can’t wait to see all your fantastic, subplot-supported novels on bookstore shelves one day!
Oliveirra, Robin. Winter Sisters. New York: Viking, 2018. Print.
Sutcliffe, Chelsea. “Stapling Your Reader to the Page: Subplots and the Crusade Against the Cheese Sandwich.” Vermont College of Fine Arts. Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montpelier, Vermont. January 2015. Audio file. Web. 14 April 2015.