The Importance of Subplots

You may have a winning basic story, but if you’re looking for ways to strengthen your story and turn it into a more compelling read, you need a subplot. In fact, you need several subplots. Subplots add dimension to your story. They have the power to transform flat black-and-white stories into a living, breathing, prismatic experience.

Let’s discuss subplots: what they are, why they’re so darn important, and how to incorporate them into your basic story.

Be sure to check out this list of best practices to follow when creating subplots.

What is a Subplot?

Every novel has at least one plot. In simple terms, a plot is a sequence of connected events that are bound together by cause and effort.

The subplot is a side story that exists within the main plot. The subplot is connected to the main story but never overpowers it. The subplot can splinter off and describe events that take place outside of the main story. However, the subplot’s purpose is to strengthen the main story line in some way.

J. R. R. Tolkien masterfully employed subplots in his fantasy novel, The Lord of the Rings. The main story follows Frodo on his epic journey to Mount Doom in Mordor where he must destroy the ring. However, it also includes subplots that follow Merry and Pippin, Gandalf, Theoden, Aragorn, and many more as they fight against the individual forces of evil in their own way.

Tolkien’s use of subplots improved his main story in two distinct ways:

First, the subplots fed into the novel’s central theme. The subplots pit each main character against evil. Although some characters succumb to evil, the subplots as a whole reinforce the theme that good ultimately triumphs over evil.

Second, the subplots helped to create a sense of space. The reader is able to explore the various settings of the vast Middle Earth because each subplot shows a different location. In this way, the subplots serve as world-builders.

Now that we have a clear definition of what a subplot is and how subplots helped J. R. R. Tolkien, let’s talk about why subplots are important for your story.

Why are Subplots Important to Your Story?

Let’s explore why every novel needs at least one subplot.

Subplots Add Complexity to Your Story

You have a basic story, but without subplots, it’s basic indeed. Subplots allow you to explore different sides of the protagonist, the antagonist, the world in which they live, and the central themes so that you can weave a rich tale. Otherwise, your story will read as shallow and simplistic.

Subplots Add “Meat” to Your Story

Every novelist wants a robust, hardy tale. But there’s only so much you can say about the main story line without falling into “filler” territory. Let’s be honest, The Lord of the Rings could’ve been a short story if it just followed Frodo to Mordor, but what makes it a spellbinding, gazillion-page epic is the presence of subplots. Likewise, your main story could probably be wrapped up within 10 pages or less, but meaty subplots stretch the story into hundreds of pages (without feeling like filler).

Subplots Moderate the Pace of Your Story

You can’t take your reader on a never-ending roller coaster ride. Not only is that bad for the adrenals, it’s pretty much impossible to do over the span of a 200-page novel. In order to keep your reader’s attention, you’ll need to play with tension and pacing. A great way to do that is to incorporate subplots. Subplots can help you change the pace and even the tone of the story. If you’re dealing with a particularly dark part of your plot, you can inject a lighter subplot that ease the tension and give the reader breathing space.

Subplots Push the Story Forward

A subplot should also move the story forward in some small but deliberate way. You can use a subplot to develop the character and give them something that they’ll need to use for later on in the story.

Subplots Give the Reader a Global View

Use subplots to keep the reader informed about the other characters in your story. If you use the third person multiple or omniscient POV, you can follow various characters’ stories that run parallel to the main story line.

Subplots Explore the Theme

As we discussed above, you can use subplots to draw out the theme of your novel. Your subplots can help the reader connect the dots and see the bigger picture.

Subplots Improve Characterization

Subplots allow you to show instead of tell. Without subplots, how would you communicate that your character has grown? You can show the progression of a character through the arc of the subplot. You can also show different aspects of the character’s personality, including what motivates them to respond in a certain way. Create sympathy for the protagonist or the antagonist through a subplot.

Subplots Keep the Reader Invested in the Story

Most subplots aren’t resolved in one scene. You can weave them throughout your story. Set up a subplot and revisit it throughout your novel to keep the reader on the hook.

How to Incorporate Subplots Into Your Novel

Now that we’ve discussed why subplots are amazing, let’s talk about how to add them into your novel.

How to Plan Your Subplots

Start by looking at your story as a whole. What parts of your story naturally lend themselves to subplots? This technique can also work if you’ve already written your first draft but feel like it falls flat and can use something “extra.” Perhaps you’ve jumped from point A to point B without showing how the character has changed. Remember: Show, don’t tell.

For example, let’s say that you have a character who starts off as a farmer but will eventually become a skilled soldier and defeat a fierce opposing army. But how does he transition from farmer to soldier? Create a subplot that allows your character to develop these skills. Perhaps, when the farmer runs away from the opposing army, he happens upon a retired soldier who teaches him the art of battle.

Create an Arc for Each Subplot

A subplot should begin and end within the main story line. Take care to wrap up every minor story before reaching the climax of your novel. To create a well-rounded subplot, answer these two questions:

  • What is the goal of the main character in this subplot?
  • How does this subplot affect the main story?

Remember that Subplots Cannot Stand Alone

Subplots cannot and should not stand alone.

While you can take subplots away from the main story, you should never be able to take away the main story from the subplot. A subplot that can stand alone should be its own story.

Final Thoughts

A subplot can focus on another aspect of the protagonist, or it can follow the story of another main character and his or her development. It can drive home theme and it can aid in world-building. Subplots will enrich your novel and make your story a more compelling read.

Before you go, be sure to check out these related posts:

Don’t forget to download this list of subplot best practices!

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2 Comments

Pamala

Thank you, very much. I am working on a story and looking for a way to pull the pieces together and focus on the main story.

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Kim

Great article! I always fear that my subplot won’t add any value to my novel or overpower the main plot but these tips are very helpful. Thanks

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