A novel is never really just one story. It’s a combination of characters, souls, wants, desires all rolled into one. A subplot is a story within your story — it’s what your characters are doing when they aren’t focused on the big picture.
Today we’ll define exactly what makes up a good subplot and how you can write one yourself.
First of all, don’t panic if you can’t immediately identify your story’s subplot. I did this recently and it’s completely unnecessary. Chances are you already have a subplot unfolding, even if it’s not fully developed yet.
The size of your subplot and its significance will vary depending on the story you’re trying to tell. Take Game of Thrones for example; that story is composed of subplots that connect all the characters together and link them to the greater story — the fight for the Iron Throne.
Other books are much more linear and don’t stray far off the main storyline’s path, and that’s okay. If you already have a really complex or clear mission for your characters, throwing in subplots that distract from the point of the book may actually do more harm than good.
But as a rule of thumb, every book should have at least one subplot. Not only is it a way for you to keep readers interested when things are moving slow (because they’ll have a question lingering in the back of their minds) but it also gives you a way to fill in blanks in your writing when you aren’t sure what to do next.
So what is a subplot exactly?
Any secondary story that takes place in your book. It unfolds alongside the main plot and can range from a budding romance to a health ailment to a masked psychological disorder.
If you’re writing a crime drama, for example, and your main character is a detective who copes with the stress of work by drinking heavily, then his struggle wih alcoholism could be a subplot.
In a post-apocalyptic survival story, two characters’ potential romance makes an excellent subplot and this is one combination I see quite frequently.
Romace makes an amazing subplot because it gives you a reason to bring two characters together and reveals parts of them to your audience that might not come out otherwise.
Subplot vs Subtext
These are a lot of articles online about these two terms, but many of them are longwinded and pretty confusing.
Let’s break this down so it’s nice and simple:
Subplot = A secondary story that takes place alongside the main plot.
Subtext = An underlying theme of a literary work, TV show, film, or play. It is a message that reveals itsef over time.
Your story’s subplot will add depth to your characters and further drive your main storyline, while your story’s subtext will slowly reveal hidden truths and motives about characters that wouldn’t ever be stated outright.
Check ot some examples of subtext from famous books and movies here.
Remember it this way: Subplots are subordinate, subtext is subtle.
How do I come up with a subplot?
Ask yourself this:
What does my character want out of life?
There should be more than one answer to the question. If the first response is “survive”, what comes next? Or, better yet, what’s something they used to want that they abandoned? Maybe they wanted to fall in love and have a family but the idea was shattered by their own parents’ divorce or a major heartbreak.
Perhaps they had a child once who died and now they’re afraid to care for anything, but deep down they still crave emotional intimacy and a chance to nuture and be nutured.
Your subplot is a chance to show readers who you characters were and who they want to be. It’s a chance to bring characters together, start fights, find love, and everything in between.
Your subplot may be introduced before the main storyline. In fact, it may even be the catalyst for your entire book.
Here are some examples of subplots from famous literature. You may be surprised at how obvious they are here but how they completely slipped under your radar when you read the books.
Subplots dont have to be glaring, obvious shifts in narration. Instead, they should be like trustworthy companions that run alongside your plot and give it a nudge in the right direction. They may even trip your plot at times, make it fall flat on its face, and force your characters to new, unimaginable heights.
Subplot Idea Generator
Check out this writer’s idea generator. It’s got tons of options to choose from. You can tweak the results to suit your novel, use them for freewriting exercises, or even just take them as is and toss them into your book and see what happens.
My current WIP, Within, has three subplots. There’s the romance between my two protagonists — a romance they’re both resisting. There’s a character’s struggle to fight a demon growing stronger inside of her everyday, and there’s also a problem of both my main characters being hunted in their hometown.
What’s your current story’s main plot and its subplot? And how important do you think subplots are to a novel? Have you ever read a book without one?