Our writers’ group met for the first time in 2017. Our discussion centered on plotting fiction and subplots. My own challenge with subplots is that they multiply like weeds. Before I know it, I’ve got half a dozen story threads which could be subplots, and my main plot’s vanished in the mayhem.
Other writers in the group said they added a subplot because someone said they had to have one.
Plotting fiction: relax and write, allow a subplot to emerge
Here’s some excellent advice if you’re unsure about subplots, from How to Add Meaningful Subplots to Your Novel:
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.
Every character in your novel is on his own journey. He has desires and goals for his life. Think about the goals of your minor characters. How could his or her goals impact on your main characters?
In my first draft, I’ve found it most useful just to write. Subplots will emerge from the secondary characters you most enjoy.
Let’s look at some tips to help you to use subplots to improve your novel.
1. Illuminate your main character with a subplot
In my current novel, a contemporary romance, my heroine’s sworn off men, because of bad experiences she’s had. A subplot: her sister’s husband has moved in with his mistress.
Since my main character’s oblivious to her own contributions to her relationship problems, her interference in her sister’s separation helps her to understand herself. She thinks she knows exactly what her sister should do, but her interference turns out badly.
To create a useful subplot, tie the subplot to your main character’s arc.
2. Action: force your characters to move out of their comfort zone and act
Be wary of a subplot that could be resolved with a bit of communication between characters. Have your characters do things, which affect your main characters, and cause conflict.
In your reading, look at subplots. Effective subplots not only reveal something about your main characters, but they also involve action.
In my own novel, my main character interferes, and tries to help, but she makes things worse, and this contributes to the Dark Point (the “all is lost” phase of the Hero’s Journey, if you’re using it to plot your novel.)
3. Wind up your subplot before your climax
If you’re writing a series (or think you may want to write a series, using the world of your novel) allow some subplots to be unresolved. You can tie them up in the next novel, or use them as the starting point for your next novel.
Your main subplot however should be resolved before your novel’s climax. You might need to tinker and tweak a little to get this to work out. Don’t let the subplot linger on. Resolving your main subplot after the climax is usually a mistake; it weakens your novel.
When you’re plotting fiction your subplots keep readers reading
Some genres demand subplots. In mysteries for example, the main plot is your sleuth’s sleuthing. A conventional subplot concerns your sleuth’s home life, or lack of one.
With every word you write, your primary goal is to keep your readers reading. Subplots can ensure that they do.