How to use subplots to make your story better
Subplots are a little like plot twists. They’re also like that moment when you’re driving and someone cuts you off. Well, sometimes. We’ve all hit that moment when we realize our story might be moving slow. We have the plot prepared, the storyline laid out, and at this point, we’re just walking through the woods or heading to our goal. The journey to the goal is going to be boring! The plot doesn’t involve much happening besides a few attacks along the way. What do we do?
You might have had a similar panic attack. At least, you likely had a conversation with yourself in which you wondered whether your story was hitting a dull moment, and you were just going to have to hope readers kept going. Don’t hope. Fix the problem.
Subplots aren’t a bandage. They’re a cure
Subplots are ridiculously useful. Not only do they spice up your story, but they add depth to it as well. You add in a subplot or three or four, and your story will be filled with tension and wonder and excitement.
Don’t let yourself feel comforted by saying your story was interesting up to a point, so your readers will keep reading—especially if you’re writing in a fast-paced genre. Take advantage of subplots, and don’t be afraid when the inspiration hits you and it throws your story off track. That’s perfectly fine. Let your subplot take its journey. Help it along.
Reasons to add a subplot
Here is a short list of reasons you would consider a subplot; you might have thought of a few already:
- Reveal information that you can’t give the reader without dumping it without reason
- Advance your story in a more satisfying way
- Plot twists that increase tension
- Introduce a problem/conflict that the character needs to address
- Speed up your story or slow things down to address specific issues/characters
- Solve a problem
- Introduce a theme
- You have multiple characters whose goals aren’t related at first (or ever)
What is a “bad” subplot
Bad isn’t a good word to use, so I put it in quotes. I want to warn you of something first because this post will read like you should put in random issues that make things crazy and keep your reader interested, but that’s not completely true.
Subplots have two main goals
You want your subplot to keep your story engaging. That’s the first thing. The second thing is equally, if not more, important: you want your subplot to provide information, or to aid, the main plot. Even if your subplot simply emphasizes a part of your character that’s essential to understanding the story, your subplot must fulfill something that adds to the story.
Whether it’s something as simple as a character or something as complex as a theme, a subplot must work with the plot. So, if your heroes find a lost girl and return her home before continuing their journey, it will be a pointless subplot if it did nothing to, for, or against the characters. If they didn’t learn anything or gain/lose anything, why did you add it? If that little girl didn’t allow them to obtain something that helps them in their journey, what was the point in them finding her and helping her? If it didn’t unlock an internal conflict or answer a character issue readers might have had, why that subplot?
If readers have to part from their main road to take a detour, they don’t want to end up in the same spot when they come back around. They want the detour to let out on the same path, sure, but they don’t want to feel like they wasted their time on what was meant to be a scenic route.
Subplots are not just newly created issues
A subplot is basically a smaller story within your story. Someone dying isn’t a subplot—not unless it opens up a previously hidden internal conflict that has to be fleshed out. A subplot is its own story, but it’s part of a bigger story. While you can make your story more engaging by introducing small problems like attacks, stolen necessities, getting lost, etc., that’s not exactly a subplot. So, that’s not what we’re talking about.
Where to add a subplot
Many writers come up with subplots as they’re writing. Some begin a story with a subplot.
If you’ve ever been writing out the duller part of your “journey” (whether physical or internal), you might have had a moment where you thought about something that could happen. You might have considered a problem that had never been addressed. Maybe it interrupts the journey or sets everything off again. Maybe, it has to happen before the main plot can make sense or be relevant.
Did you ignore that burst of inspiration because you thought it messed up your plot? Well, bring it back to the surface. Let’s talk about it.
Add it when nothing else is going on
When I was writing Rescued, for example, my main character ended up in the woods heading toward the mountains. She wanted to find someone who, unknown to her, wasn’t actually there. That traveling in between, aside from being hungry and reading the journal entries about kids being kidnapped, the plot was going to hit a dull spot.
I fixed that with a subplot. Actually, I fixed it with a couple. The MC found where the kidnapper was staying to better observe those she took, which allowed her to address internal issues she didn’t know she had. The character also found a little girl whose trust she had to earn before she learned how she got out there. While looking for help, she also found her captor again.
Subplots can put your progress on hold (like finding the girl), but it can also help you advance the plot (like finding the hideout). You can add a subplot anywhere, but when nothing else is going on, adding one will allow your readers to engage themselves while the main plot lingers, growing more tense.
When your character is ready for some growth
If your subplot will bring out something within your MC, it’s important to introduce this before the result becomes too relevant. If your subplot is meant to show a more compassionate side of your character that readers don’t see, for example, you don’t want to introduce a moment in which your character’s compassion doesn’t make sense. This fits a character who is harsh, but there’s a reason they’re compassionate about whatever it is they care about. That would be like Lt. Dan (in Forrest Gump) working with Gump on the shrimp boat immediately after hating him for having lost his legs. He blamed Gump, but it wasn’t until Gump continued to show love and kindness toward Dan that Dan started to appreciate Gump in his life, and later they worked together when something Dan didn’t think could happen actually did—Gump got a shrimp boat.
When you need to flesh something out
If your intention is to let a reader understand a more complex idea—or perhaps even allow the reader to grasp the world they’re in—a subplot when appropriate will allow them to do so. If your characters are going to war, it won’t be appropriate for your characters to take a break and enjoy the world they’re in because they’re going to war the next day. Not really. I’m sure there are exceptions, but we’re not talking about those. The point is, make sure it’s an appropriate moment. Make sure it makes sense.
In fantasy, this is especially important. Fantasy is usually fast-paced, but it’s difficult to find time for the reader to learn the new languages or understand what they’re seeing. Whether a subplot forces them to slow down or denies them the ability to advance at all, you can use it to flesh out the world you’ve created. Just don’t go overboard. It might be an interesting world, but staying in it too long will still bore your reader.
Answer a question
I’ll use Rescued again as an example. In the beginning, it seemed rather convenient that my MC escaped her captor and plain odd that she didn’t know how. Allowing her to find the hideout that belonged to the person who kidnapped children introduced her to information that led her to know how she escaped—who saved her.
Your subplot can seal plot holes or uncover answers to things your reader should know, but that the main plot prevents them from knowing.
Subplots can work alongside the main plot
If I told you where this would start, it would be the beginning of a book. Subplots don’t always have to be new stories introduced. Sometimes, especially in multiple-perspective books, a subplot is part of the main plot in a way that it’s parallel to it. It works at the same pace until the two intersect, if they intersect at all.
This is different from what I’ve been talking about because this doesn’t necessarily end until the plot ends.
What is it?
This type of subplot would be used in situations where, for example, two characters will meet but don’t throughout most of the story. Both of their roles might be important, but they have different goals that may or may not relate to the other perspectives in the story. When the characters converge, however, the main plot comes into play.
For example, you might have a story about a farm girl trying to get medicine for her father and an apprentice training to be a healer who needs a certain plant for an important potion that will save the sick king. What neither know is that the prince is closing their gates to significant trade that anger other countries, so if the king isn’t saved, a war will occur. The two perspectives are different and the plots aren’t even vaguely related. But, the characters will meet, and the farm girl might grow the plant (or know where to find the plant) that the apprentice needs for his potion. Save the father, save the king, and they both save the kingdom.
When and if the subplots play into each other is up to you
The subplots might not converge at all, or they don’t converge until the story ends.
You might have an escaped prisoner and a bounty hunter, and the story ends when they meet and the prisoner is killed. You might have a story about that farm girl and the apprentice in which the two meet halfway and finish out the story together. Or, you might have a story in which both characters play a role in a larger plot, but their goals are different. Like if a man works on creating a magical sword and the recipient of that sword kills the one person who couldn’t otherwise be defeated. They might not ever meet, and for whatever reason, both perspectives might be absolutely necessary.
Just remember that subplots are stories within a story.
Subplots don’t have to be resolved quickly
Your subplot can make a story interesting just by existing. Introducing a new problem also introduces excitement that your readers will appreciate when the story ends.
Sometimes, your subplot will start somewhere then linger while your characters continue on the main plot’s path. Perhaps a character might be the father of his ex’s child, and while they wait on DNA results, he’s resolving the issue of being engaged, his wedding being in a couple weeks. This subplot opens its own series of issues, including telling his fiancee and them both deciding what they want to do regarding their future.
Subplots can become essential to your story’s progress, and they can make your story so much more significant in your reader’s eyes than it would have been without one. Use subplots to advance your story, to increase engagement, and to develop everything within it. Give it life. Use simple problems and complex issues to make your story real. No one lives a life with one problem at a time.
Neither will your characters.