Well, the shrewd amongst you may recognise this interweaving of information and expansion of a backstory as the subplot of a novel.
Let’s dig deeper and delve into what a subplot means, the different types of sub-plot and how you can write a compelling sub-plot (or two) within your own narrative.
What Is A Subplot?
A subplot is otherwise known as a minor story or a secondary plot which often runs parallel to the main plot. It can be about your main character(s) or about another character whose narrative interacts or impacts their narrative. If, like me, you like to personify writing concepts, think of your subplot as your main plots’ loyal and supportive (but less glamorous) companion. It’s there in the background, being relied upon to move the narrative forward and help the main plot reach its full potential.
The story subplot is a highly underrated writing device. In fact, many new writers concentrate so hard on perfecting their main plot that their sub-plots are often neglected, which can make their whole story fall flat. Therefore, it’s important to recognise from the outset (i.e., when plotting your novel), that the possibilities of a well-crafted sub-plot are endless. Not only do they make the story more interesting and complex through the weaving in of multiple themes, but they can also allow you to develop characters further, cement a character’s motivation, create a plausible and rich backstory and/or increase tension and suspense within the story by creating obstacles and hurdles for your main character to overcome.
In short, a subplot is a story within a story.
Types Of Subplots
As mentioned previously, a subplot can be used in many ways with many different objectives. In a compelling, tightly woven novel, you may not even recognise the sub-plot as it will be expertly integrated into the main plot. And often, a sub-plot may have more than one purpose.
Let’s explore some of the different ways to use a subplot.
A mirror subplot occurs when a secondary conflict mirrors the main conflict but doesn’t match it. Your main character will usually learn a valuable lesson from a mirror subplot, which will help them resolve their own issue. For example, in a rom-com, a mirror subplot could be the main character’s best friend also falling in love at the same time, but her love interest turns out to be a two-timing so-and-so. This may help your main character lookout for all the signs of infidelity in her own potential conquest.
Romantic/Declaration Of Love Subplot
This is by far the most popular type of subplot across all different genres because it shows a more sensitive, relatable side to the main character and will inevitably help the reader empathise with or understand the character’s actions better. The important thing to note is that it doesn’t have to be a romantic interest, instead, it could be the relationship between a character and their family member, or the blossoming of a new friendship. For example, in a crime or thriller book, this subplot could be a serial killer’s relationship with their mother (in the past or present), which may help a detective anticipate their next move.
Parallel subplots are often referred to as B-plots, C-plots and so on. In fact, some writers argue that whilst they are related to subplots, they are in fact not subplots at all as they function independently of the main plot. Parallel plots often involve interactions between secondary or tertiary characters, but they still relate to the underlying theme of the novel. For example, if your novel is about a woman’s journey of grieving the loss of her partner – a parallel plot could be about another person going through a similar loss, who at some point in the narrative guides your protagonist to find joy and hope in life again.
If you are creating a parallel plot, it’s important to ensure that it doesn’t stray too far from the main plot as there is a risk of it no longer supporting/enhancing the main story.
Conflict subplots seek to do what they say on the tin – add conflict and tension in your novel. They’re also a brilliant vehicle for in-depth characterisation as they allow you to show how a character overcomes certain conflicts. Be cautious about how, and where, in the story conflict subplots interact with the main plot because they have the potential to slow the main plot down.
Expository subplots are a great way of adding in backstories – such as a character’s past or childhood, which explains the main plot. Do be careful with this one though. Don’t throw in everything about your character (i.e., what he or she ate for breakfast in 1975 or the name of their childhood best friend’s dog), only the information that your reader needs to know and what is significant in driving the main plot forward.
Subplots that complicate the situation for your protagonist are great ‘in action’ plot points to keep the reader turning the pages. For example, say your protagonist has arranged to meet their love interest at Grand Central Station when the clock strikes midnight, a complicating subplot could be their demanding job that causes them to work late, adding tension and higher stakes regarding reaching the station on time.
A foil character in a novel is used by writers to contrast or reflect another character – often your protagonist – by highlighting their traits, appearance, personality or morals. In literature, a foil can take the form of an antagonist, but that isn’t always the case. The uniting theme is that the foil character and their journey shine a spotlight on your main character and their journey.
Foil subplots work in similar ways by literally foiling the plans of your main character. So, for example, your novel could show two different characters tackle the same problem in completely different ways, which at its core helps the reader identify the key personality traits of your protagonist and their narrative.
A bookended subplot essentially frames the main narrative – it’s introduced at the outset and then pretty much left alone until near the end when it’s resolved as part of the main plot.
A real, ‘oh yeah’ satisfying moment!
This subplot design will often take the form of an otherwise throwaway incident or scene that then spirals out of control. Either the character is involved in the scene, or the impact of the scene is so significant that it becomes its own subplot, which then infiltrates the main plot.
Subplot Examples In Literature
Let’s move on to look at some examples of subplots in literature.
Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
The main plot of the story is the relationship between Amy and Nick after Amy goes missing. But in true testament to Flynn’s skill as a writer, there are multiple sub-plots tightly woven into the fabric of this novel, many of which you may not even recognise. For example, the relationship between Amy and her high-school boyfriend, Desi, which acts as both a complicating and a conflict subplot.
Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This award-winning novel tells the story of a young Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, who immigrates to the United States to attend university. The underlying themes of the novel are identity, race and belonging but there’s a romantic subplot seamlessly woven into the story regarding her relationship with Obinze, highlighting the importance of love and belonging.
The Woman In The Window – A J Finn
The main plot of the story begins when Dr Anna Fox witnesses a murder from her bedroom window. But a large part of the novel delves into Anna’s backstory as to how she came to be agoraphobic and what happened to her husband and daughter, which works well as an expository subplot.
How To Write Subplots
Now we’ve discussed what a subplot is and the different types, here are my five top tips for weaving a subplot into your narrative.
- Ensure that your subplot(s) plays second fiddle to the main plot (and continues to do so throughout the novel).
Remember that your subplot is there to compliment and enhance the main plot, not to overpower it. If, while writing, you find your subplot taking over, maybe have a think about reworking the narrative and making your subplot your main plot.
- Experiment with your subplot to make your narrative more interesting.
For example, if your main plot is in third person present POV, consider writing the subplot in first person past POV.
- Don’t leave a subplot hanging.
There’s nothing that infuriates a reader more than a subplot that’s not wrapped up and not tied to the main plot by the end of your novel. To avoid this happening, make sure you give your subplots a narrative arc (i.e. a beginning, a middle and an end).
- Use subplots to avoid a flat middle.
If you find that your main plot starts to drag by the middle of your novel, consider using a subplot to add drama, suspense and action.
- Don’t leave your subplot until the last minute.
Subplots that are written as a second thought or in a mad rush are easy to spot. Consider how you can maintain that depth and authenticity of character throughout the narrative arc.
What Subplot Suits Your Story Best?
I hope by now that you see the value of subplots in driving a story forward and are brimming with inspiration as to how you might add some exciting subplots to your novel. Before choosing what type of subplot your book needs, consider the topic, the genre, and (of course) the plot itself.
Often, working on your characters first and getting as deep with them as you can, can lead to all sorts of subplot ideas regarding their motivation, their past or any secrets they may be hiding.
And my final piece of advice – don’t get carried away.
Take a step back and take a look at your story structure first, considering where your subplot can seamlessly be woven in without jeopardising your main plot. You may want to do this by writing out Post It notes with each chapter and plot point written on it and moving things about, writing your story arc on a whiteboard, or using a plot-building function on Scrivener or other similar writing programs.
And if you get stuck, simply pick up your favourite book and see how the author has woven their stories together. After all, reading is one of the most invaluable ways of learning how to write well – so if your favourite author can make it look easy, then you can do the same too!
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