Tips for Writing Subplots: How to Add Subplots to Your Novel

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Tips for Writing Subplots: How to Add Subplots to Your Novel

Whether it’s a budding new romance, betrayal of a family member, or the revelation of a secret past, there are many ways to write a subplot that enhances your story. When done well, these plotlines will add depth and complexity to your world and can highlight the themes in your novel.

In this post, we’ll discuss what subplots are, and how you can write them to improve your story.

What is a subplot?

In literature, a subplot is a secondary plotline that runs parallel to the main plot. Subplots can reveal more about secondary characters, tee up interesting plot twists, and/or add another layer to the story, creating a richer, more complex narrative arc for your hero. They’re like mini-stories you weave into your novel that connect to your main plot. A good subplot should raise the stakes for your hero and complicate your main storyline.

When plotting your novel, remember that subplots aren't just subordinate storylines. There are many types of subplots you can include to add depth to your story, including romantic subplots, foil subplots, or even subplots relating to the hero's backstory.

Tips For Writing Subplots

Subplots must relate to the hero

It may sound egotistical, but the truth is your hero is the center of their universe. Your story is about your hero–or heroes, if you’re writing multiple points of views–and centers on their fears, goals, and motivations, so any subplot you create should tie back to them. If not, you’re left with random story threads that aren’t relevant and may not fit with your story. Not only will this confuse readers, but it may lead them to put your book down and never finish. You can connect your subplots back to your hero either by using it to support or oppose the theme of your novel, explore other similar themes that may be related, push your story forward in some way, or reveal new things we need to know about the hero, supporting characters, or antagonist.

Don’t let a subplot overshadow the main plot

Your subplots should enhance and enrich your story’s main plot, but don’t let any of your subplots overshadow your main story. Since your subplots are typically the internal or B story of your novel, they’re usually not as interesting to read on their own. It can bore readers to be inside the thoughts and emotions of your hero too much. What makes these plotlines truly interesting is how they interact with the main story, which is why you need to tie these subplots back to your hero to keep readers engaged and move the story along.

Subplots show us the breadth of your world, how the hero’s actions affect other characters, and how those characters’ actions affect the hero. They give readers a bit of a break from the primary storyline, but if you focus on the subplot too much, it can start to feel contrived. When crafting each of your subplots, try to have them resolved before the main story ends, unless you’re writing a romantic subplot as those typically end by the final scene of the novel with your characters getting their “happily ever after.” Ensuring your subplots end before the main storyline will keep them from overpowering the external story.

Secondary characters and the world

When creating subplots, think about who your hero is. Look at the interactions between your hero and the secondary characters. What type of people are in their life? What are the dynamics, and what is their life like? You may come up with some interesting subplots if you stop and ask these questions. For instance, maybe there’s something going on with another character that you’ll need to keep track of, like the parent or sibling of the hero having an illness. Maybe it’s a bully from school or a fight with their best friend.

Another thing you’ll want to do is take a look at what’s going on in the world around the hero. Are there any story threads they can be pulled into? Maybe they witnessed something they shouldn’t have or something important to them was lost or stolen. You can also use subplots to foreshadow events and reveal clues as the story unfolds, especially if your novel is a mystery or thriller.

Avoid too many subplots

Too many subplots can lead to fatigue and/or confusion for readers. For writers, it can make you lose track of all the subplots if you’re juggling too many secondary storylines. Remember, your subplots are like mini-stories within a larger story, so those smaller storylines should get resolved before the end of your novel. This will be much more difficult to do if you have five or six subplots as opposed to one or two.

One way to make sure you don’t end up with too many subplots is by looking at the subplots you’ve created and asking yourself a few questions. How can you combine subplots? Are there any subplots that are playing the same role? Maybe you have two subplots that both support the theme of the novel. See if you can combine them together. Are there any subplots you may need to cut out completely? Maybe you have a subplot that doesn’t connect back to the hero or one that spins off into its own story that you can expand on later. Cut that out of your current novel and save it for another story in the future.

Give subplots a narrative arc

Subplots are mini-stories with their own beginning, middle, and end, so make sure to give them their own narrative arc. You can use the “Save the Cat” beat sheet to do this, but keep in mind you may not need or want to use all fifteen beats for these storylines. You may use them on a smaller scale by just including the foundational five beats or combining some beats.

One way to create a narrative arc with your subplot is by using it to show a supporting character’s journey or arc in your novel. This arc can tie back to the overall theme of your story, or you can use it to create conflict and tension with your hero that connects to the main plot. Subplots can explore other themes that are still relevant to your main story, or to explore different avenues or iterations of your hero’s flaws.

Ready to add subplots to your novel?

Subplots can be fun to write, and there are many ways to write them. Using the tips above, you can enhance your story with any subplots you decide to write. To dive deeper and learn more about the internal or B story, check out the Write a Bestselling Novel in 15 Steps course in the Writing Mastery Academy.


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