I’ve written about the three-act structure in novels and how it relates to plot. In this article, I want to take a look at subplots and how to use them in fiction.
Subplots are secondary or side stories to the main plot of the story. By nature, they have less action, focus, and events that unfold than the main plot. In addition, subplots have a lower impact on the story and usually involve the secondary characters.
There are two types of subplots: parallel and interwoven.
Parallel subplots oftentimes revolve around secondary characters and move alongside the main plot but are not related. However, they do have an impact on the main plot and characters, because of the association between the secondary and main characters. As the main plot and the parallel subplot unfold, it’s not always clear up front if the subplot is pivotal until later in the story. This can be used as a tool to drive up the tension of the story.
Interwoven subplots weave in and out of the main plot and are related to the main purpose of the story. Both the main plot and the interwoven subplot affect the other, thus creating complex layers as the main plot and subplot continually push and pull along the path to the resolution of the story.
There are many ways to use subplots in a story. They can be used to drive the main plot, develop a rich and complex story, and give secondary characters life. Subplots can also be used to increase rising tension and to purposefully misdirect the reader.
If the main plot and subplot(s) unfold at the same time, they can be used to show contrast or add mystery. Each time you present a set of clues with each scene, the reader must work out what’s important and what isn’t. And as the main plot and various subplots continue to tangle, the tension rises. Some of the most satisfying climaxes in literature are when the main plot and subplots unravel for the big reveal.
So when and where do you add subplots into your story? One simple way is to use the decisions of the protagonist and antagonists as catalysts for subplot development. Every decision has consequences and these can cause ripples throughout the story, causing that straight line from point A to point B to take a detour because one decision to clear one obstacle caused another obstacle to appear that wasn’t there before. This is where those secondary characters and their arcs (or subplots) come into play. And it is how the different characters’ desires, fears, strengths, and weaknesses interact and change based on what each character did.
Short stories and novellas are typically light on the subplots because there simply isn’t enough room to develop both the main plot and a subplot.
If you’re writing a novel, but have hit a roadblock or your story suddenly stalls because there just isn’t enough there, take a look at the decisions your main characters have made and ask yourself what types of ripples that decision set off. Is there a secondary character who can now contribute to the story, thus giving you a subplot?
With all subplots, it is important to remember that it is a subplot and should never outshine the main plot of the story.
So what subplots have you used or enjoyed reading? Do you like writing subplots or do you find them to be too intimidating?
Now… go write something!