Understanding Plots and Subplots When Layering Scenes in Novels

A few weeks back, I shared some posts on how writers can layer subplot scenes over the ten foundational novel scenes.

Subplots are terrific if done well, so if you’re writing a novel and you don’t have a subplot, think about adding one. If you missed these posts, go back and check them out.

We’re spending some months exploring my 10-20-30 Scene Builder Concept. Since novel writing is a dog of a task, and it’s daunting to figure out how to transfer all those great scene ideas into a solid story, using a system that helps you build wisely is the key.

While it’s fine to just lay out all your scenes in advance in some sort of intuitively logical order, that often proves disastrous. If a writer doesn’t have a seriously strong grasp of novel structure, it’s not going to be easy to wing it when it comes to organizing scenes.

Why Use a Layered System

And though there are numerous methods to structuring a novel, I decided to develop this layered system. Why? Because I think it’s practical and is an easy (relatively) way to ensure you have all the right scenes in the right places.

I asked my readers if any wanted to be a willing victim and give my 10-scene chart a spin with their novel. These past weeks I’ve been sharing some of these charts, and I hope these examples of various novels are helping you see how you might get those ten key scenes nailed.

You need to make sure you have those foundational scenes in place first before adding in other scenes. Sure, go ahead and come up with thirty or fifty great scenes. If you want to do what I do, put each scene on an index card.

You can even use colored index cards and assign one color per key character. Since I often have a lot of POV characters, this really helps, especially when I lay out all the cards on the dining table to get a big picture of my novel’s plot.

So the idea here is to start with those ten scenes, then layer over with another ten, and then another.

We looked at how a writer might structure a novel using the ten key scenes and then layer in ten subplot scenes.

What’s a Subplot?

Be sure to take a look at the posts on subplots, so you can see how Phyllis has followed the examples given with her novel.

Subplots need to develop alongside the main plot, and while you might consider all these scenes below as just plot developments and not an actual subplot, notice that such “side developments” can follow the same layering system.

What differentiates a subplot from main plot developments? To put it simply, a subplot can involve either the main character or another character, but it’s usually focusing on a wholly separate issue and/or situation.

I gave the example of my subplot in A Thin Film of Lies. The main plot involves the hit-and-run case my detective is dealing with. The subplot is a Plot B situation in her life—Fran’s dealing with her teenage son, who’s been accused of hacking the school computer.

That subplot has nothing to do with the main plot, but the themes lay parallel and add depth to story and character overall.

In Colorado Promise, my subplot of the treacherous ranchers and the heroine’s brother’s dangerous involvement with them builds to the point where that subplot highly impacts my main romance plot.

Those plot developments aren’t actually part of a subplot, since they do tie in very specifically with my main plot action. But they are layered in just as I would a subplot. The bad guys are mentioned, events build around them (though they are never shown), and in the climax, they provide the key opposition that keeps my hero and heroine apart.

So let’s take a look at one of my client’s charts. She took a stab at the 20-scene subplot structure.

An Example of 20 Key Scenes

Phyllis Still’s Defiance on Indian Creek is a terrific novel, YA historical. Here’s the summary of the plot:

Thirteen-year-old Mary Shirley is the eldest of eight children, living in the wilds of Western Virginia in 1775. She longings for a normal life with friends and someday suitors but is concerned for her family and worried about her future when her papa returns from an Indian campaign. He speaks of pending war against Britain, declares his loyalty to King George III, and plans to move to Kentucky territory.

Mary is confused. Then she discovers strange surveys with riddles and hidden documents. She witnesses her papa betray a Patriot neighbor, and reads a disturbing letter that implements him as a traitor, endangering the family. Tensions rise.

Mary is the only one who can deliver a lifesaving dispatch when her papa falls ill. She struggles with betraying the Patriot cause but can’t allow Papa to go. Under disguise, she endures rough treatment and harrowing conditions before being rescued. Her relationship with Papa is restored. She is grateful for her family and all that they have overcome. She is hopeful the family will be safe in Kentucky and knows they can make it together.

Let’s look at how Phyllis layered in her subplot scenes (the subplot scenes are noted in bold).

#1 – Setup: thirteen-year-old Mary Shirley sits in her log cabin with her seven siblings and Momma in 1775 Western Virginia. She wants a normal life but is worried about the future if her Papa doesn’t make it home from an Indian campaign. Momma allows her to go alone into the wood to scout for Indian signs. (Chapter 1)

#11 – Introduction of subplot: Mary’s papa had declared his intentions to remain loyal to King George III. She discovers strange surveys with riddles in Papa’s saddlebags, which leads her to investigate additional documents hidden in a box in the barn. Her brother George tells her about a man passing documents to Papa in the dark. Mary’s tendency to make rash decisions leads her to question his motives. (Chapters 1-4)

#2 – Turning Point #1 (10%): inciting incident: At the end of her trip to Fort Culbertson with her Papa, she reads a disturbing letter from an obvious loyalist and concludes that her papa is a traitor. (Chapter 5)

#12 – Show how the inciting incident affects the subplot: Mary is grieved when she witnesses Papa hand off documents from a Patriot neighbor to a man at Fort Culberson. (Chapter 5)

#3 – Pinch Point #1 (33% roughly): Papa brings home a couple of slaves to do the tobacco field hoeing while he is off on supposed survey jobs. Mary is upset by his betrayal of the Patriot neighbors and the danger he brings to the family. (Chapter 7)

#13 – New subplot development that mirrors or is opposite of the main plot: Mary is conflicted about Papa’s desire to remain loyal because he seems to be betraying neighbors and endangering the family. She isn’t able to ask him about it without divulging her inappropriate snooping. Then she learns that the Indian raids could resume because the British are encouraging them to remain loyal the king. (Chapter 6)

#4 – Twist #1: Mary is discouraged and worried about another letter she finds that warns Papa of loyalists incurring wrath from Patriot rebels known as Whigs. (Chapter 9)

#14 – Progress with the subplot: Mary’s fear of the neighbors discovering Papa’s betrayal comes to fruition. She saves him from being accused of inciting slaves to run away by telling of the conversation she overheard between the slaves. But Papa doesn’t refute the loyalist charge. (Chapter 9)

#5 – The Midpoint (50%): Mary’s fear is realized when an angry mob of neighbors threatens to burn the house and barn, due to Mr. Thorndike’s slaves escaping after Papa returned them. They are also suspicious of his ties to suspected Tories. (Chapter 10)

#15 – Things start coming to a head and creating high tension: Mary lets her anger over Papa’s loyalism be known and almost betrays him to a Patriot neighbor named William McGuire. (Chapter 11)

#6 – Pinch Point #2 (62% roughly): Mary wants Papa to change his loyalties and confronts him about what she knows about his survey jobs being covert activities. (Chapter 6)

#16 – Developments with the subplot reach critical mass: When Papa avoids Mary’s direct question about how he knows of possible Indian raids, she blurts out her confession of snooping. He informs her that she lacks understanding but can’t tell her any more. (Chapter 12)

#7 – Twist #2: Papa receives a summons to muster for the local militia training but intends to refuse and tells the family to prepare to move to Kentucky when he returns from a final survey.

#17 – Subplot feels at a standstill: Mary has to let go of her hope that Papa will change sides. She focuses on helping her expectant momma and siblings prepare for the trip. (Chapter 13)

#8 – Turning Point #4 (75%): Major setback: Papa and George return home sick. Papa summons Mary to deliver lifesaving dispatches to his secret currier. She struggles internally. (Chapter 15)

#18 – Same issues with the subplot: Papa’s request is refused by Mary until he rises from his illness, willing to risk his life to deliver the lifesaving dispatch. Mary decides he is more important to her than the Patriot cause.

#9 – Turning Point #5 (76-99%): The climax: Having learned shocking information from the currier along with a warning not to be seen by anyone on the main road, Mary sets out for home in a drenching thunderstorm. Hunger leads her to befriend men who seem friendly but lead her straight to Tories who beat her up and threated to violate her, but she escapes. (Chapter 17)

#19 – The key scene that resolves the subplot in a completely satisfying, full way: Papa explains more details to Mary after Momma treats her wounds, and Mary confesses her love for Papa and devotion to him. (Chapter 20)

#10 – The Aftermath (90-99%): Her relationship with Papa is restored, and Mary is hopeful that life in Kentucky will be all he says. She resolves to help the family survive the trip to Kentucky. (Chapter 20)

#20 – A final, parting shot of the happy result of the subplot wrapped up: With a glance at her gold and green initials on her neckerchief, Mary resolves not to dream too far into the future, hobbles to the table and is fill with appreciation for her family and the strength they have all gained that they will need for the dangerous trip. (Chapter 20)

I hope you can see what a terrific job Phyllis does with introducing, developing, and bringing to a head and resolution this plot thread. While it’s not an actual subplot, all the scenes bout Mary’s relationship with her papa and his involvement in the Revolution are part of that thread.

The main plot scenes show their family life, preparing for moving to Kentucky, working their fields, etc. Those scenes aren’t just backdrop; they’re a progression of events leading to the goal of preparing for their move. Mary’s visible plot goal for the novel lies with the main plot, but her emotional journey and spiritual MDQ (major dramatic query) is found in the plot threads about Papa’s loyalty and Mary’s inner conflict about her relationship with him.

Defiance on Indian Creek coverI would say the spiritual MDQ for the book is this: Can Mary resolve the disapproval and anger she has for her Papa’s supposed actions and beliefs and find it in her heart to love him regardless? The climax of the novel, as required, answers this MDQ at the same time as them plot MDQ is answered: Will they be able to safely prepare for and begin their trip to Kentucky?

Be sure to get Defiance on Indian Creek. If you are writing YA or have readers in your life that are young adults or teens, this book is a must-buy!

Want a chart that lists these 20 scenes with a subplot? Click HERE.

Has this helped you to see how you might layer in a subplot? Any observations or thoughts about Phyllis’s chart?

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  1. Thank you for encouraging, supporting, and challenging authors to publish quality novels. This was a tough assignment and took me two weeks, but very valuable. I’m using this chart to sort out the scenes for book 2 now.

    1. I’m so glad you put in the work to create this. It’s very clear how well structured your novel is. And I’m sure using this chart is going to help you so much with Book 2!

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