Shelley Widhalm

Improving a novel’s subplots

In Subplots, Writing, Writing Novels, Writing Processes on September 18, 2016 at 11:00 am

A single plotline typically isn’t enough to carry a story to the end, so complications in the subplots are employed to add depth, complexity and tension to its unfolding.

The subplots aren’t separate from the main story, but often involve characters and action close to the point-of-view or main character. They are the stories within a story that support or drive the main plot. The smaller stories are woven into the main story, moving back and forth from one to the other, not parallel with one forgetting the other.

In one of my young adult novels, the main plot follows the course of a teen girl seeking to belong at home and in school, while two of the subplots involve her neglectful father who engages in part-time parenting and an alcoholic mother who has reasons, or excuses, for drinking. As I tell their stories, I add depth to the teen’s story by explaining why the family is falling apart.

The subplots in a novel involve less action and present less significant events than does the story of the main plot. They have to have a purpose and affect the outcome of the main plot, connecting in time, place or thematic significance.

My subplots in the YA novel demonstrate neglect and the resulting feelings of not being accepted or wanted on multiple levels. How the character handles her responses will show her growth.

Subplots enhance a novel in various ways, such as by:

  • Adding an idea.
  • Impacting the novel’s resolution.
  • Introducing secondary characters or depicting characteristics of the main character readers otherwise wouldn’t see.
  • Underlining the storyline’s actions or providing relief from the story if it’s heavily packed with action or is dark in mood.
  • Serving as a way to complicate the main character’s life—private, personal or professional—such as through a budding romantic relationship or a complication in the workplace from a jealous co-worker.

If the subplots have other characters, called supporting or minor characters, the subplot characters need to interact with the main character at some point in the telling of the story. Otherwise, the different stories remain separate.

If there are too many subplots, they distract the reader from the main plot. The subplots have to contrast with the plot but not repeat or compete with it, taking away too much attention or scattering reader’s attention.

They also need to be complete stories with a beginning, middle and end, just like the main plot.

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