How to Add Meaningful Subplots to Your Novel

When I first started considering writing novels, I found the idea of subplots daunting. I knew I needed to put them in, but I really had no idea how, why, or in what manner subplots played a role in novel structure.

Subplots are everywhere. We see them in the movies we watch, and they are usually in every novel we read. We may instinctively know how they work in story structure. I always thought they were inserted to give some depth to the overall story, whether movie or novel. And that is one purpose for a subplot. But writers need to be careful not to throw any old subplot into a story in the hope that it will just add some interest. If you keep in mind that everything that goes into your novel must serve the advancement and complication of the main plot, you will fare well.

 Subplots Serve a Purpose

What do I mean by “serve the advancement” of the main plot? This brings us back to our four support corner pillars we’ve gone over these last six months. The main plot is all about a protagonist going after a goal in the midst of conflict and high stakes. That’s the essence of the main plot’s purpose—to be a vehicle for this character and her objective in the story.

So, if you keep in mind that any subplots (additional plotlines) you create should add to the main plot in a meaningful way, that can help you come up with some interesting and helpful subplots.

Subplots can involve your protagonist and/or your secondary characters. Regardless, whatever side story you weave into your novel, it needs to impact your protagonist.

I have read numerous novels, some by best-selling authors, who have subplots thrown into their stories that don’t fit at all. These subplots feel dropped in as noise and distraction, and I’ve sometimes found myself skimming pages to get past them in order to get back to the gripping main plot. That’s a bad thing.

In addition to being irrelevant to the novel’s purpose and premise, they are often boring, featuring mundane concerns and activities that don’t add anything of interest. And that makes for a dissatisfied reader.

Plot Layers That Mimic Real Life

I came up with a concept of plot layers, and I’ve written some detailed posts on this that can help writers clearly get how to layer plots, so if you want to learn more about that, read this post here. (And here are some additional posts, here and here, that will give you more on this.) I don’t want to completely reiterate what I outline in that post, since I’m all for putting out as much fresh info as possible on my blog. But let me briefly summarize the idea.

We want our characters to have lives that feel real and similar to our own. Novels should be portraying a slice of real life (but just more interesting, we hope). Our lives are multilayered with different objectives or goals, and if you look at your life in these terms, you can identify numerous goals you are pursuing each day, year in and year out.

Some of these goals are big and cover years of your life. The “big” goal in your life may be to find a person to marry, raise a family, get a college degree or a great job, scale Mount Everest. Much of your time, effort, and thinking may wrap around a big goal such as one of the above.

However, life is not one main plot. Life is full of short-term and long-term goals. You may have some more immediate goals of trying to write a paper for a class, or put a presentation together for your job. You may have the goal of losing ten pounds over the next few months (or years). These are also goals that you could think of as “subplots” in your life.

And then you have small daily goals, like getting the grocery shopping done or finding a company to come shampoo your carpets. Life is made up of layers of goals. Layers of plot in the story of your life. Some goals may be boring; others exciting. But it’s all part of life.

How to Show Ordinary Life in a Meaningful Way

Now, since you don’t want your novel or characters to be boring or involved in boring activities, this begs the question: How do you make your characters’ lives real and mirroring real life if you don’t have similar kinds of plot layers, including some of the daily mundane, boring ones?

Glad you asked. And this, to me, is the secret to writing great plots and subplots in a novel. Make this the word you associate with subplots: complicate. If you make it your objective to use your subplots to complicate your story, that is a first strong construction step. That doesn’t mean you want to throw in side stories that are only messy situations.

But the best purpose for subplots is to enrich, deepen, and help advance the main plot and reveal character motivation. So with every subplot you add in (and often, the more the better), utilizing any number of secondary characters, find a way for this additional storyline to be a complication. For whom? Ultimately, for your protagonist. For, even if the subplot is about another character, the impact of what that character is going through has to affect your protagonist. (I’ll be going more into secondary characters next when we go over that pillar of novel construction, so I’ll hold back for now on delving too deeply into this now).

If you read my post on plot layers and you come up with an A, B, and C plotline for your protagonist, and then maybe an A and B plotline for two or three of your secondary characters, you’re going to have a rich story. By making sure all the secondary plots tie in, enhance, and most importantly complicate the main plot concerning the protagonist going after his visible goal, you will be working with strong construction materials.

Don’t throw random subplots into your novel just for filler, or because you think they are neat ideas. They really must serve a purpose in your story. Sure, make them entertaining, comic relief. Subplots really help to bring out your characters and all their issues, and they help make your characters clash, which, to me, is the best reason for layering plots.

Showcase Your Themes with Subplots

The key to coming up with great subplots is to keep in mind your themes for your novel. Subplots are great devices for showcasing theme, with your secondary characters embodying an opposing view from that of your protagonist.

I could spend weeks talking about subplots, and more than likely next year’s course will be all about plot, since I can’t do justice to this very rich topic in a few posts.

Take some time to brainstorm lots of ideas for your subplots. Think about the allies and antagonists in your novel, who are there to help or hinder your main character in reaching her objective for the book. Give them plot layers that will help bring out your themes, challenge your protagonist, and of course, complicate your story.

Subplots Require Thought and Intention

If you make it your aim to make it as hard as possible for your hero to reach his goal, subplots can be very useful in this way. Don’t settle for a boring, wimpy subplot as filler. A great subplot can turn a good novel into a great one. This one pillar of novel construction—plot and subplots in a string of scenes—requires careful attention and deliberation.

Structure your scenes correctly, creating capsules of time in which significant action takes place. Those scenes will be the vehicle for your plot and subplots, to take your reader from the beginning to the end of your story in a riveting, cohesive manner.

You many feel I brushed past the huge topic of plot because I didn’t go in depth on all the specifics of constructing your plot. Although that construction is crucial that it be done carefully, it would take months to explore sufficiently. For the purpose of this course, though, the key pillar that must be built well relies on efficient, tight scene construction as a framework to support your plot, so that’s what we’ve been focusing on. I hope these posts on scene structure and subplots have helped you construct a strong pillar for your novel!

Ready for your next checklist? Here it is, below, with the first four. Next week we move into exploring pillar #6: Secondary Characters with Their Own Needs. This will segue nicely with what we’ve just gone over about subplots. So tune in next week!

Got any thoughts about subplots? Have you put some into your novel? Did you find a way to create subplots that enhance your main theme and create some great conflict? Share what you’ve learned in the comments.

Inspection checklists:

Inspection Checklist 1-concept with a kicker

Inspection Checklist 2-protagonist with a goal

Inspection Checklist 3-conflict with high stakes

Inspection Checklist 4-theme with a heart

Inspection Checklist 5-Plots and Subplots in a String of Scenes

Photo Credit: Daniel E Lee via Compfight cc

6 Responses to “How to Add Meaningful Subplots to Your Novel”

  1. Staci Troilo July 16, 2014 at 8:59 am #

    I loved this post. I don’t really enjoy stories with only one thread throughout because you’re right; life is far more complex than that. But I don’t like those stories that weave a bunch of threads together only for us to realize when we’re done that the tapestry doesn’t have a pleasing pattern, but rather a jumbled one. They have to make sense.

    It’s not an exact parallel, but I like to think of it like mysteries on television. Each episode is self-contained, but it’s not until the end of the season that the final mystery is solved. (The subplots and the major plot.) And when you consider that each episode often has a subplot of its own? That just adds to the layers.

  2. Mareva July 17, 2014 at 7:06 am #

    Love the layers concept…..it’s so easy to go for the chocolate seven layer cake when a three layer cake fits the bill..I keep a notebook to help me keep the major and minor conflicts straight, and to realize when I’ve over complicated the lives of my characters ….sometimes this helps me see what the real conflict is…so easy to fall in love with all the most brilliant ideas..even when some are not…enjoyed the blog today…nice to be reminded again if what I know but don’t always use…

    • Staci Troilo July 17, 2014 at 12:32 pm #

      That’s a great analogy. I do love a seven layer cake (but I really don’t NEED it). Sometimes moderation is key.

  3. Nicohle Christopherson July 18, 2014 at 12:59 pm #

    This post is absolutely on the money. I often find myself overwhelmed by the main plot, and in time, I figure out that the main plot is actually about thirty different subplots all wrapped around one singular character’s story.

    This tends to end up my best standpoint, though. I really, really love the way you worded most of this article, and I look forward to reading more. Thank you.

  4. Juliana January 9, 2016 at 10:06 pm #

    Just started plotting my first novel. I feel the main plot is pretty tight, but today it dawned on me: I need subplots! Thanks for this article!

    • cslakin January 10, 2016 at 9:18 am #

      You’re welcome! Subplots are really fun too. They make a good book great.

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