The Art of the Subplot.
What exactly is a subplot? Is there truly an art to them? Why should we concern ourselves with storylines that don't revolve around the main characters or conflict?
Well, today I'm here to answer those questions. Subplots are extremely important when writing a novel, because they add depth, intrigue, and layers that can build your story into something magnificent.
What Is a Subplot?
The term "subplot" is short for "subordinate plot". It is a part of the story that takes a backseat to the main conflict, but also has an impact on the overarching narrative. A subplot can range from characters breaking away from the main group, conflict from another point in the story, a crumbling relationship....these are just a few examples off the top of my head of what a subplot could look like.
Where to Look
Whenever I think of subplots, I think of Shakespeare. The man was a master of making entertaining subplots that tied into the larger story. For instance In Twelfth Night the main plot is focused around Viola, Orsino, and Olivia, all caught in their weird little love triangle. The subplot focuses on the servants of Olivia and their antics, but ultimately ties back into the main story, and enhances the experience for the viewer/reader.
However, you can look at a million other stories beside the ones Shakespeare came up with. Open up your favorite book and look at some subplots in there. Make note of how the author weaves them in. Is it more of a backstory? Is it going to come back to be important in the future or is it important now? Why are the characters doing this and not something else?
It's important to ask questions as a reader, as it definitely makes you a better writer.
How to Develop Your Own Subplot
While I was writing the first draft of my book As the Crow Flies, I started off with no outline, no guide, no plan at all. The only thing I had in mind was two boys going on an adventure. As I got about ten chapters in, I realized that if this book was only about the main adventure, the story would fall pretty flat. Running from place to place is fun and all, but where are the real stakes? What is on the line, besides their lives? What can I discover about this story if I just add in something else?
So I looked at what I had already had written. The main character's mother began to stand out to me. I jotted down some notes, looked at a few other characters, and realized that the mother would be the reason everything went downhill and the adventure began. From there, relationships bloomed, conflict actually developed, and I suddenly had a whole new layer to my story.
Just take a look at your main story and pick at it for a while, till you find something that sticks out. Follow that path, write down some notes, and see if it can tie back into the main thing you want to achieve.
Balancing Multiple Subplots
In As the Crow Flies, I have the following
1 main plot.
1 large subplot.
6 (give or take) small subplots.
Now, if I wasn't careful, this could be a recipe for disaster. I (somewhat accidentally) created a story where everything is connected. Pieces just began snapping into place, relationships turned into a tangled web, and I suddenly had a lot on my plate. However, I knew what needed to happen. I knew how the story ended and I think that is what really helped me balance all of the subplots. '
Know the end of your story, even in a vague way. This can help you figure out what all the goals are, how all the storylines tie in, and what should happen to make sure everything is wrapped up. Create charts, make goal lists, write outlines for each subplot...there are lots of ways to keep yourself organized, but ultimately, knowing the ending really helps for me.
When all of my subplots got to be a little too much, I forced myself to sit down and outline. That saved me personally, but it might not work for you. Trial and error is the best way to work with your subplots, in all honesty.
The Art of the Subplot
To wrap this post up, I just want to say that there truly is an art to writing subplots. You have to understand your story deeply, you have to want to make it as rich and wonderful and layered as it can be. Of course, you don't need all those crazy subplots that I have (I'm a bit of an extreme case), but think about how you can supplement the main part of your story. Adding in bits and pieces of other things, even in a subtle way, can make it so much more rewarding to both the reader and the writer.
Until next time,