A subplot is a secondary strand of a story plot that supports the main plot. Subplots are comprised of the same elements as a main plot only on a much smaller scale—a character pursues a goal, encounters conflict and works to resolve it. Subplots are essential to the success of a novel. A subplot can add complexity, tension and dimension to a story. How do authors create and use subplots? Carefully.
Start by considering what is going on in a protagonist’s life? Explore personal and professional issues, relationships with secondary characters including colleagues, friends and family, past experiences and hopes for the future, troubles and conflicts. Each of these areas could give rise to a subplot.
Subplots may include: physical or psychological issues, romance, conspiracies, addictions and grief. These issues could impact the protagonist directly or involve her through friends or relatives.
Problems and needs of secondary characters can lead to subplots as long as they advance the story.
A good subplot will escalate the conflict by creating obstacles that make it more difficult for your protagonist to achieve her goal. Whatever side story you create it must impact your protagonist either immediately or later.
Subplots can begin in a new chapter and in a new point of view. Every viewpoint character adds a subplot with his own set of goals and obstacles. However, the characters in a subplot need to dip in and out of the main character’s quest.
Use subplots to bring realism to your novel because life is not a straight line. Lives are impacted by a myriad of goals, some long term (achieving professional fame), intermediate (prepare for and give a presentation) and short-term (fix dinner).
Subplots can add variety to a story. A serious story can be lightened up by a humorous subplot. An action-packed plot can be broken up by a more reflective subplot.
Treat all secondary plots as mini-novels but connect them in some way to the main plot.
Never allow a secondary story line to overwhelm the main plot. Subplots are meant to enhance the main story, not compete with it.
Subplot resolutions can be treated in more than one way. You can cut back and forth between the plots throughout the story then converge at the end. Or, save a subplot wrap up for after the resolution of the main plot. This restores a state of normalcy in the mind of the reader.
Creating and using subplots stretches an author’s imagination, are fun to invent and, most important, are essential to a well-written novel.