If both a novel’s plot and subplot can be defined as a “distinct storyline in which a character pursues a goal”, what’s the difference between these two elements of novel writing? It’s a great question and one worth discussing. The following novel-writing tips will help you understand:
- what a subplot is (or isn’t), and
- the important role a subplot plays in a novel.
Novel-Writing Tips – Nuances of Plots vs. Subplots
The “central plot” of a story, where your lead character is fighting passionately to gain something, keep from losing something, or overcome something, has its own distinct plot thread. This thread shows all the struggles the lead character goes through to finally achieve his/her goal or resolve the problem.
A subplot is another storyline that you weave into a central plot, adding complexity to the lead character (or other characters) in which the character has some sort of dilemma that they must also overcome.
Novel-Writing Tip: A subplot becomes potent when it adds depth, complexity, conflict or humanizing dimensions to the central story and its characters.
Think of a subplot as another small story running alongside the central story. Characters in the subplot have direct involvement with both the character(s) in the central plot and the central plot itself: their actions and conflicts can affect the outcome of the main plot. The subplot can be quite simple or quite complex as long as it follows one rule:
Novel-Writing Tip: The subplot thread should never overshadow the central plot thread.
The Practical Functions of the Subplot
A good subplot can add much to the story. It is best illustrated by examples.
- When writing a Romance novel, the main goal is to unite the man and woman, but let’s say the woman has a child with special needs and she must often forego romance to tend to her child. Having to do so complicates the romance and causes tension between the man and woman. He, never having children of his own, does not understand the innate pull on a mother’s heartstrings that keeps her child at the forefront of her mind. When an emergency arises and the child is rushed to the hospital, character traits are revealed on both sides of the spectrum. Perhaps the man finally begins to understand the depth of the woman’s love, he even becomes attached to the child; the woman sees a side of him that she’s not seen before – one that she admires and which brings them closer together.
Novel-Writing Tip: The subplot gives a new dimension to the plot without changing the plot type.
- When writing a Mystery novel, the main goals is to resolve the mystery, but let’s say the lead detective begins to have feelings for the beautiful victim of a crime. This realization allows for setting up a romantic subplot that adds complexity to solving the mystery and could reveal itself by the detective having:
- An inner conflict – the detective fights his feelings for the woman because he believes that all of his relationships end badly; his ex-wife left him for another man, taking his daughter with her, and he can’t risk another loss of that magnitude.
- An outer conflict – the detective realizes that his feelings for the victim are a conflict of interest and he must keep his boss from knowing how he feels about her. Still, his boss is on to him and begins to threaten his removal from the case, and from her.
Using a romantic interest as a subplot offers a great opportunity to show what the characters are made of. A detective must overall be strong and focused, how will those attributes shine through to solve the case in light of this vulnerable side of him? It could be quite interesting!
Novel-Writing Tip: The romantic subplot in a mystery plot serves to humanize the tough detective but must still keep his primary character traits intact.
Novel-Writing Tips – Subplots With No Romantic Involvement
A romantic interest seems to be the leading choice of subplots no matter what kind of novel we are talking about. From Mystery to Westerns to Science Fiction, adding a bit of romance heightens the passion of what might already be a passionate story. Everyone wants to love and be loved and this element of life worked out in a story draws the interest of many a reader, and writer. However, there are other subplot choices, and they don’t always have an opposition.
Novel-Writing Tips: The field of subplot ideas is as wide and wild as your imagination.
I’ll give some examples, below.
- An off-duty detective works at the Boys Club and has taken an interest in a child who turns out to be the son of the man he’s pursuing.
- The boss of a woman searching for her lost child has grown tired of her erratic behavior and is looking for a reason to fire her, taking away the only means she has of hiring a detective.
- A woman still troubled by an abusive childhood seeks counseling to sort out why she’s unable to attain intimacy with a man (in a Romance Novel plot), keeping her from the love she yearns for.
Novel-Writing Tip: A subplot must have closure, must be resolved, just as the plot must be satisfactorily resolved for your readers.
These subplot novel-writing tips will help you get started thinking about how to make the most of your novel’s subplot. Make your story more potent using a subplot to enhance your characters and central storyline with complex issues and conflicts. Use it to create interesting scenes that support your character’s primary traits while showing some human vulnerability.
I really get into writing subplots, sometimes finding it more fun or interesting to write than the plot. It can involve other characters, some with very relatable personalities. It can be used to bring out real quirks in behavior.
I would love to hear about the subplot(s) you’ve enjoyed writing into your stories. Please leave me a comment below, and we’ll start a discussion!
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