How Many Subplots?

Courtesy of Tracy, I found inspiration for today’s tip in her comment about a novel she drafted that had six subplots or story threads. A review of her work said, “Good story line, too complicated.” In my classes I am often asked about subplots. What is a subplot and how many should the first novelist attempt?
Writing Tip for Today: A subplot is simply a story within the main story. Look at it this way: Our lives have more than one arena. A subplot is a fictional way to handle some of the arenas in your character’s life that aren’t the main focus. A subplot needs the same structure as the main story: A beginning, middle and end, rising action, a problem or conflict that is resolved at least partially. If your protagonist’s main goal is to solve the murder, possible subplots could include a love story, a situation within some other relationship or to escape the bad guys without losing one’s own identity. In inspirational fiction, the protag’s faith (or lack thereof) is often a subplot. A partial resolve to a plot or subplot would mean that the reader is satisfied by the direction to which the resolution points instead of a neat and tidy outcome.
How many subplots? Each novel will have its own issues, but in general 2-3 subplots is plenty, especially for a new writer. If your reader has too many complexities to juggle, it may be a turn-off unless you have great skill to pull it off. The same advice I give about POV (point of view) characters applies here. Only create as many as are absolutely necessary to tell the story. The more subplots, the more things the reader must remember as the story unfolds.
Try This!
Chart the subplots in your novel. How many are there? Is it too complex? If it is, which would you eliminate?

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

4 comments on “How Many Subplots?

  1. Funny you should write about this today. I just had a bang my head against the wall day trying to figure out if I needed some sub plots and more POVs. My first novel had lots of twists and turns and several POVs. I guess I like more action than just a love story. So can I go back and add a subplot even though I have the main plot established?

  2. Linda here: Jan,you can certainly introduce a subplot at any point, but remember: You will need to introduce the subplot early in the story through plants and/or foreshadowing. The subplot’s story line needs to be built logically so the reader perceives it as a natural extension of the story. Subplots or new characters that pop up after the first half of the story will be harder to justify to the reader. Hope this helps!

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