Subplot Survival 101

Happy 4th of July!!!

I’ve been in Mexico City this last week so have been out of the loop, but I saw in Friday’s post asking for topic suggestions, a request to deal with the (sometimes) thorny issue of subplots. These usually surface around the middle of the novel and (hopefully!) add  greater depth and complexity to the story. However, sometimes subplots can get unruly, unmanageable, and can mess up your manuscript if you’re not careful.

My current WIP has a number of subplot threads which need to be woven into the larger canvas of the novel, and so I thought I’d try and give some tips on what I’ve discovered as part of my own writing process. An initial caveat – I am an outliner so much of my advice centers on upfront (as well as ongoing) work when working out the plot. For those of you who are ‘pantsers’, although I think much of the advice still stands, you would probably approach the issues in the editing rather than drafting stage. I also highly recommend my fellow TKZ blog mate, James Scott Bell’s, excellent book ‘Plot & Structure‘ for those interested in having a more in-depth analysis into the plotting of their novel.

When approaching the issue of subplots I focus on four main issues:

  • Identification
  • Simplification / Justification
  • Trajectory
  • Resolution

I’ll deal with each of these in turn:

  1. Identification
    When developing the initial outline for my novel, I first ensure that I am clear on the primary premise that forms the basis for the book as this establishes the principal plot which will form the body of the novel. This sounds self-evident but many a book has been derailed by a failure to have a clearly articulated premise and plot – and then what happens? A muddy mixture of plots and subplots which, more often than not, confuse a reader. So if, for instance, the primary plot is a murder investigation, then make sure you are clear on how that investigation will play out before adding   subplots that may add complexity. Once you are clear on the main plot, then you can identify the subplots you want to weave into your novel. When you do identify the subplots you want to incorporate, make sure they add depth rather than merely ‘murk’ to the story!  Subplots could (and often should) focus on deepening the development of your major characters, enhancing the theme that underpins your novel, or providing parallel stories that focus on character relationships and intrigue. One you’ve got these identified the next step is…
  2. Simplification / Justification
    Just like in the identification phase, if there are too many competing subplots a novel may become unnecessarily complex and confusing. That’s not to say you don’t need to have subplots, it just means you want to make sure you don’t have so many that they start to muddy the waters and confuse a reader. I always think it’s important that the subplots add something significant to the story, the loss of which would make the novel less rich and engaging. So if a subplot merely adds an unnecessary layer, diversion, or complexity then bin it and move on to…
  3. Trajectory
    As an outliner, I map out the key plot points for the principal story as well all the subplots. In this way I can ensure a balance in the tension and development of all the key plot threads in the book. It also means I can see how the overall story will pan out with chapters and scenes that progress the main plot as well as the subplots. You don’t want, for example, a subplot to fizzle out or bog down the novel in the middle. Again, its all about adding to the principal story not detracting from it. Finally…
  4. Resolution
    If you do have a number of subplots in your novel, it’s vital that you resolve each of them (as well as the principal plot) so the reader feels a sense of closure and satisfaction. How many books have you read where a subplot seems to just disappear or go nowhere?…this, for me at least, is very frustrating. In my outline, I try to make sure I’ve resolved each of the subplots I’ve introduced. If I want to leave something open for a future book then I want to make sure I’ve done it consciously (and the reader knows this) rather than unconsciously (which will only tick a reader off…).

So these are my key stages when it comes to subplots. Although, as I said, I outline everything, I still have to keep all these issues in mind when I edit my drafts, as inevitably some subplots just don’t pan out or work the way I intended. Then, as often happens, I need to be ruthless in what stays in and what gets chucked.

So fellow TKZers how do you approach the issue of subplots? What would you add to my list, change, or do differently?




15 thoughts on “Subplot Survival 101

  1. Good timing – I’ve got a subplot in my current WIP that one of my crit partners is questioning. While I see it as adding depth, she argued that it didn’t involve my protagonist enough to warrant its existence in the book. However, I have a returning cast of characters, and I like being able to let them all into the pool. However, her words did make me take a second look, so I layered in a bit more of a connection to my protagonist. I hope it works. It’s one of those “this is real life on the ranch” subplots, and I think there has to be more in a book than the linear ‘solve the mystery’ (or in my case, solve the mystery and give hero and heroine their HEA.) Romantic suspense, IMHO, is a lot harder to write than mystery what with the requisite two almost equally weighted protagonists, their own story arcs, plus the mystery/suspense plot as well.

    And, for the record, I’m not a plotter/outliner.

    • Romantic suspense is tricky as you do have two equally significant main characters and their relationship must develop as the plot unfolds. I do think that ensuring a connection to one of the main protagonists is a vital aspect of some subplots – that way they don’t just ‘hang’ out there but seem integral to the book. Good luck!

  2. I refer to subplots as B story, C story, ect. I want them to contain their own dramatic arcs, the degree to which is commensurate with their role in the story, and I want the dramatic tension of their resolutions braided into either the final plot point or the final resolution of the A story, or, the story proper.

    An aside: I also want my primary characters to arc to greater or lesser degrees depending on the importance of their roles. Perhaps this can be the subject of a future post. Multiple arcs adds unmatched beauty and depth to the story. The finest examples of this technique I can refer to are from the screenwriter Eric Roth. Watch or read the screenplays of “Forest Gump” and “Benjamin Button”. His characters arc so beautifully I just got goosebumps thinking of one in particular.


    • Good topic for another post on the whole issue of character arcs as they coincide alongside the main plot as well as subplots to add depth to the story. The image of braiding each of the A. B, and C stories into the main plot is a great one!

  3. Boy, this is a bad day to ask this question. Normally, I am able to keep my subplots under control but with the WIP, I have two parallel track MAIN plots. I thought one was a subplot but then it went Godzilla on me and now it’s “oh no, there goes Tokyo.”

    Usually I can go in with pruners and get the subplot looking like it should but this book is covered with kudzu. I fear I need chain saws. I am in the part of the book James calls “annual physical” and I smell a major rewrite coming.

    Happy 4th, all! Go light your candle, whatever it may be!

  4. Claire,

    Thanks for your clear analysis of subplots.

    A question: should/can subplots be used to prop up a sagging middle in your main plot? I’m about 140 pages into my WIP and getting a bit lost about how to drive the main plot to its next level (yeah, I confess, I’m pantsing it).

    Have a couple of subplots going, one of which will eventually loop back to reveal the villain. Since I’m not sure what to do with the main plot, I’m pushing forward on subplots which have taken on their own lives (altho not quite at the kudzu level Kris so colorfully describes).

    My “outline” is a roadmap of the interstate with a starting point and a destination, with numerous minor roads that meander before converging at the end. Right now, the interstate (main plot) is under construction, so I’m taking a detour on surface streets. Hopefully the scenic route will maintain the reader’s interest until I get back on the freeway.

    Happy Independence Day to all!

    • I’d say keep going, finish the draft, and see how it pans out if you’re not an outliner but, although subplots can add depth to the middle of the book, I’d try and avoid using them to prop up the sagging middle as the reason for the ‘sag’ might be something that needs to be fixed with the main plot itself. Hopefully all the threads should move and interweave nicely throughout the book. Good luck!

  5. Good advice–I particularly liked the idea that a subplot can further develop an important character, but only in the service of the main plot. Sometimes it helps to write dates, even if you don’t use them, for the progression of the plot and subplots, so that they converge in a way that enhances the drama of the main plot.

  6. Ugh, subplots. One editor used to insist that all subplots be tied somehow to the main story — one subplot character overhead something said by a main character, etc. Sometimes this worked, but other times, it made for unwieldy writing. New editor does not make those demands, thank goodness.

  7. Thank you for these helpful strategies for subplots, Clare. Subplots may be insubordinate to the main plot but I can see they need just as much thought as the main plot. Now to think up a few stunning subplots for my embryonic fiction work.

    I have borrowed ‘Plot & Structure‘ from our local library twice and it’s time I bought my own copy.

  8. Clair,

    Where in your stories do you resolve the subplot(s)? As I mentioned above, the ideal place seems to be the final plot point or the resolution. These junctures in the story lend themselves as opportunities to have the subplot heighten the dramatic tension of the main story.

    For example: the protag couldn’t overcome a major obstacle, in part or in whole, if not for the resolution of a subplot.

    What are your thoughts on this?

    • I think the best approach is to find the natural resolution point but ideally all the threads should build/develop tension throughout the book towards a final resolution at the end. I like the idea that the main plot cannot resolve without the subplot and it could certainly revolve around the overcoming of an obstacle.

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