In my current work in progress, I realized that I wanted a B story, or subplot. I felt I needed a way to tie in the book’s theme with the character’s arc that was outside the main action of the plot. I had set up the basic outline of the main story, but it was lacking the emotional punch I wanted it to have, hence the subplot idea. Now that I have the subplot in mind, I feel the story will be stronger over all, and I am more confident that I will have a better opportunity to entertain my readers.
A subplot is the secondary plot that supports the main thread of action by adding dimension and depth. Ideally the subplot will raise the stakes for the main character. Subplots should add complexity and should also help the story’s pacing, as well as improve on characterization because you can show different aspects of the character’s personality that you may not otherwise be able to do (well).
Note that the subplot should begin and end with the main story line. All the loose ends should be wrapped up before the climax of the main story. Subplots should:
- Advance the story incrementally (no big chunks of subplot)
- Show the transformative forces on your main character
- Reveal information about your main character to the reader
- Provide plot twists
- Adjust the story’s pacing as necessary
- Create mood
- Solve any story problems that exist in the main plot line
- Can help establish backstory for your character
The subplot also needs a beginning, middle, and ending, just like the main plot line
- Give the main character goals and motivations in the subplot
- Make it difficult for the main character to achieve the goal in the subplot
- Bring the subplot to a satisfying ending
Let’s look at a subplot that is visible in a movie.
If you haven’t seen it before, watch “The Princess Bride.” If you have seen it before, think about the threads of the movie and how they intertwine. Those are subplots.
The movie revolves around the romance of Buttercup and Westley, but when Westley leaves to seek his fortune, his ship is attacked by the Dread Pirate Robert (the attack happens off screen). Meanwhile, thinking Westley dead for the last five years, Buttercup agrees to marry Florin’s Prince Humperdinck. On her way to the wedding, she is kidnapped by three bandits – this is the beginning of one of the subplots. Inigo Montoya (one of the bandits) is on a quest to avenge his father’s death. You probably know the dialogue: “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
This subplot leads the audience into a deeper emotional connection with all the characters and they learn that indeed Westley is alive, has become the Dread Pirate Robert, and intends to win back Buttercup, meanwhile helping Inigo Montoya to avenge his father’s death. And all the character’s story arcs are resolved by the climax of the movie. We learn all that we know about the characters through the subplots of the movie. The film is a great visual example of the plot vs subplot concept.
Remember that whatever the subplot, it should serve the purpose of moving the story forward and it should tie in with the main story line. If your novel seems to be lacking emotional depth, have pacing issues, or need conflict, consider adding a subplot.