How Many Subplots is Too Many?

James Scott Bell

Someone on Twitter asked: How many subplots is too many?

At first, I was going to say something profound like, “That depends.” But then I started to noodle on it, and decided what we need here is a formula.

My tongue is planted only slightly in my cheek here, because the more I think about it, the more I think this formula actually works. If there’s going to be an exception, you’ll have to justify it. But if you stick to these parameters, I think you’ll be fine.

First, what is a subplot? It’s a plot line that has its own story question and arc. It usually complicates the main plot in some way. It may or may not involve the same Lead character as in the main plot.

A subplot is not merely a plot “complication.” A subplot has its own reason for being, and weaves in and out of (or back and forth with) the main plot. Or it might go along on its own until it links up with the main later in the book. But here’s the deal: because it does have its own reason for being, it’s going to take up a significant chunk of real estate in your novel.

That being so, here is my formula for the maximum number of subplots, by word count, you can have in your novel (a novel being a minimum of 60,000 words).

60k words: 1 subplot (e.g., in a category romance, you might have the female Lead plotline, and the love interest plotline, which intersect)

80k: 2-3

100k: 3-4

Over 100 k: 5

There is no 6. Six subplots is too many for any length, unless your name is Stephen King.

My thinking is that if you have more subplots than suggested above, they will either overwhelm or detract from the main plot.

Sound right? What’s your take on the care and feeding of subplots?

24 thoughts on “How Many Subplots is Too Many?

  1. I’ve asked myself this question before so I’m glad to see it posted here. Everything in writing tends to come in 3s so I’m guessing that the answer should be main plot plus two.

    To keep things clear in the readers mind I would add a corollary rule: Under normal circumstances they should each deal with a different aspect of the lead’s personality – soul, heart, mind, or body.

    And since there are four parts to a complete human in the above breakdown, I wonder if one couldn’t squeeze in a third subplot with the main so long as all deal with all four areas.

    Thoughts anyone? I’m curious what others think.

  2. So I’m wondering. What if my word count is up there and there’s no subplot. Could my ms be just plain bulky or do I perhaps have subplots and merely don’t realize it?

  3. Jim, looking back on my novels, your formula seems to be accurate. I think another qualification regarding the number of subplots is what Kathryn covered last Tuesday: don’t confuse the reader. That issue usually comes out through the use of beta readers.

  4. Intriguing thought, Daniel. I rather like that idea of the four aspects. I don’t think, under normal circumstances, that I’d devote an entire sublplot to each, though I could see someone doing that intentionally for a specific, literary reason. Just thinking off the cuff here, as a thriller writer, I might consider one subplot to be a “heart” story, and it would probably be more thematic.

  5. Anna, I suspect you have subplot material there “weaving” with the main plot. Think of it in terms of who your Lead character deals with. If there’s another major character who brings along a unique obstacle to the Lead, or another agenda, something like that, then you’ve probably got a subplot.

  6. I’m glad to see some actual numbers based on word count. That gives me a target of how many to make sure I have in the story. Subplots are a weak area–they don’t naturally develop for me. They start to come into the story, and then I move past the chapter and forget it’s there (an organizational issue; out of sight, out of mind). In one story, I had thirty of these!

    As a reader, one of my big pet peeves is that subplot needs to fit the story. Particularly in thriller, I seem to find subplots that clash with the story and distract from it rather than adding another interesting layer. Like a treasure hunt with lots of action having a martial angst subplot. Periodically, the author stopped the momentum of the story so the characters could wring their hands and bemoan their fate. When bad guys were trying to kill the main characters through the story, this just knocked me out of the story.

  7. Linda, you bring up a good point for thriller writers. I think a good personal subplot can work, but it has to have its own organic tension and emotion. If it’s just about angst, fuggedaboudit. One guy who does this integration masterfully is Michael Connelly.

  8. As someone who often gets tangled in subplots this is a great post:) I think subplots are best when they help illustrate character development – I’m not a huge fan of the subplot for subplots sake which is something I often see in mysteries. I think if the subplot makes the book richer and adds greater depth to characters then it’s a good thing – if it’s just a device to confuse readers then drop it (my opinion:)!)

  9. Indeed, Clare. It may be that the superfluous subplot is really a sign that the main plot is not strong enough. Cut the fat and strengthen the main.

  10. My subplot/s/ are the important part of my story – the mainplot is just the skeleton keeping it up. Does anyone else view writing this way?

  11. Sometimes one gets the sense that a subplot has been thrown in simply to pad the number of pages in a novel. I’ve read stories that probably should have been novellas, but they’re longer due to the tacking on of clunky subplots. The only reason I can see for them being included is that the subplots increased the page count to novel length.

  12. Kathryn, it’s true. I think sometimes subplots are stuck in to prop up a “sagging middle.” However, that’s not a bad thing to do IF one fully justifies it, fleshes it out and makes it organic. That’s the art of it.

  13. I think your formula will work for just about everyone (except S. King and a few other authors writing doorstoppers). More than your suggested number adds shallowness to the characters and confuses the readers. Less … well, readers might be bored riding this one-lane highway to the end.

  14. Thanks, Mark. I like one-lane highway stories, but that’s what they are. Stories. Short ones or even novella length. Like a good Cornell Woolrich.

  15. My stuff has fallen in the 80k-100k range and has had a couple of subplots, so my work seems to match your formula. But I see some potential problems with basing the number of subplots on the length of the work. The story of Cinderella is usually told within a few hundred words and yet it has a subplot. Television ads that run for less then 30 seconds have subplots. We could make the argument that this is because every good story has at least one subplot, no matter what the size. But consider The Best Man by Grace Livingston Hill. This book has a word count of 28k. It has a main plot about a man trying to secure an important document, a subplot about the relationship between him and the woman he inadvertently married, another subplot about the man who was trying to force the woman to many him and a fourth subplot about the woman the lead man was dating. That make three subplots in half a novel, but it works.

    I’m not so sure it matters how many subplots we have as much as it matters how much emphasis we put on each subplot. The reason three subplots work in The Best Man is because the author puts the primary emphasis on the plot and first subplot and the other two plots are dealt with in small segments. When we look at the stuff going on around the main characters to decide what to include as subplots I think of it as a main plot and subplots that taper off in importance to the main plot. As the importance is less we include less of it in the story and many we cut completely because they just aren’t worth mentioning.

  16. Good advice Jim. I do like weaving stories, but too many subplots can be confusing. A good book I recently read that not only included subplots, but the subplots were as important as the major stories, was “People of the Book” by Geraldine Brooks. Excellent story that weaves strong subplots all to the culmination of the primary plot.

    If subplots though do not lead to the culmination primary they are like spiderwebs on across a trail in the forest. You notice them when your face gets slimed in them but they don’t make the journey pleasent.

  17. Love the spiderweb image. I dislike subplots that don’t influence the main plot–or worse, that get dropped when the main plot conflict gets resolved. Three days after you finish the book, you’re still wondering, “what ever happened to the sidekick’s girlfriend? Is she still waiting for him in that cafe?”

    But I love lots of intriguing subplots that may seem to stray from the main plot road but in the end–ta da! all lead to a tidily resolved Rome. Does a writer really have to keep those down to two or three?

  18. Very good discussion πŸ™‚
    I’m an aspiring writer, have had very good critiques but have sent nothing to be looked at by agents/publishers yet and wont till I’ve finished my current book.

    Personally, I don’t think there is a point where there are ‘too many’ subplots. I like the ideal number for size of the novel and it feels quite accurate, but the question is how quick the subplots ‘end’ or are fulfilled. Within one chapter? One introduced right at the start that you only get the (now obvious) answer to at the end? Or just an obstacle that is overcome by changing the characters’ current aim or direction?
    It just needs to stay intriguing AND have relevance to the story OR the final outcome of the story as a whole.

    It makes me think of an excellent example; the TV programme/series called Hustle.
    You have the main ‘plot’ (/storyline) given to you pretty much straight away, you see them carry out the plan and see the plans work and/or fail. Then it ends with one of two questions:
    1) How are they going to overcome this unexpected [problem]!?
    2) .. they didn’t say what happened [here] or [there].

    Right at the end it’s ALL answered without fail and it gives such a satisfying ending (usually, unless it was a pretty boring episode!)

    We need to write like that πŸ™‚

    ~ Pc

  19. Well, to be honest, my novel kinda has a lot more than five subplots. It’s long, but still. However, even when it’s true one should never confuse the reader, I guess if you know how to explain them and build with them the main plot, there shouldn’t be any problem.
    But I admit it, creating so many subplots can be difficult. You have to think lots of things trough and be careful with details, nevertheless, they just didn’t appear in my mind while writing, I was the one who decided how complicated I wanted my story and characters to be and started working on that.
    I also realized, the more characters you include, the more subplots you’ll have, since every character is supossed to come from somewhere and tell a different story (it doesn’t matter how small). That’s what turned them into what they are.
    I don’t like when a character is just thrown there to stand near the main character/s. They seem kinda plain and like unnecesary.
    Don’t misunderstand me. Two or three characters like those are ok with me, but ten? I don’t think so.

    In short, I might be wrong about the way I overuse subplots, but arts are made for experimenting, as long as the result is not a mess. So I don’t think it’s a crime having lots of them either. Just my opinion.

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