Writing Subplots that Sing
Novels that include at least one subplot tend to be more nuanced and reflect better real life. A mystery often features an ongoing love interest. A love story might include a murder subplot. A fantasy saga might juggle several subplots.
Writing Tip for Today: Let’s take a look at some ways to write subplots into your fiction:
Big Story, More Subplots
In a short genre novel (such as romance, sci-fi or mystery) the story may need to progress so quickly that subplots will weigh down the main story. Although you want to write fully-developed characters in your shorter novel or novella, adding too many subplots may simply distract readers instead of enriching the reading experience. Instead of an outright subplot (where there is a beginning, middle and end, with goal, obstacle and so forth), a short novel might benefit more from brief sentences or paragraphs here and there that sketch or hint at a character’s subplot.
For first-time novelists and NaNo’s, I recommend no more than two subplots in a novel of any length. Let’s say your fantasy’s main plot involves a character reclaiming the throne from a usurper. In this context, you could certainly add a love interest as well as the back story of how this interloper grabbed power from its rightful heir or heiress. It’s fine to concoct back stories and bios for secondary characters, but as you learn the craft of fiction writing, it can be a steeping learning curve to keep subplots from taking over or leading down a side road to the detriment of the main story. Remember, readers hardly ever want to be confused.
Balancing Plot and Subplot
As you write subplots into your main story, you’ll want to be sure that the subplot isn’t more interesting than the main plot. A love angle can upstage almost any plot, so be sure to tread lightly if your main story isn’t about falling in or out of love. Readers gravitate to intimacy, so if you wish them to be more concerned with the rightful king or queen, make sure your subplot doesn’t surface too often, especially in the beginning. Making readers wait for a romantic payoff actually increases tension. You are your story’s manager, that is, you show readers what to pay attention to, what to ignore, and what matters most.
If you write multiple viewpoints, be extra careful with subplots. It’s fine to know all the details of every character but beware of writing too many character’s subplots into your novel. Yes, it can be done successfully—I think of Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, with five POV characters—but it does take a lot of skill. If your readers become confused, you may lose them.
In multiple viewpoint stories, I always ask myself, “Whose story is this?” to help me decide which subplots will be included. Don’t toss the extras, though. Those surplus subplots may show up in your sequel, as in Elizabeth Strout’s saga of Olive Kitteridge.
Keeping Track of Subplots
As you draft your novel, a subplot can feel natural in the scenes you write. Or, a subplot can get lost. I like to make a scene list when I’m about halfway through my draft. I use different colored inks to indicate plot, subplot A, subplot B, etc. You might use Scrivener or just get a bunch of multi-colored sticky notes to map out your subplots. By standing back, you can then see at a glance how often a subplot surfaces in the main story.
Each subplot should have a beginning, middle and end, just like your overall story. And like your main plot, subplot events should start to happen faster as you near the climax. Another great exercise is to write out the subplot’s story arc, just as you might for any story. This may help you write more satisfying subplots, which in turn help your novel feel more fully imagined and complete.