A subplot is any plot thread that’s secondary or subsidiary to the central plot line. Consequently, a subplot receives less emphasis and fewer pages than the central plot. Subplots can revolve around the protagonist by bringing out internal conflict or a relationship conflict aside from the external conflict of the main story.
You don’t have to wait until the middle of a book manuscript to bring in a subplot. These secondary story lines can begin almost anywhere in a novel except the climax. Most of them, however, enter the book near the end of the first act or in the book’s middle section.
If you’re somewhere in the dark, dank, miserable, swampy middle of your story … if you feel your main, central story line sagging and losing impetus … if you feel bogged down and unable to keep your story going … then you should try the strategies I’ve mentioned in previous posts (toss in some new plates and increase conflict) or introduce a subplot.
Writers frequently start a subplot at the end of the first act as a transition into the second. This gives readers a jolt of renewed interest from the story taking a fresh direction or a different perspective. The pacing usually changes here as well, and the middle of a story is an adroit place to insert some background explanation or to deepen characterization. Sometimes, the protagonist will become involved romantically here, or an old flame can be rekindled. New characters and their problems may be brought into the story, giving the protagonist additional challenges to solve.
However, as exciting as it is to launch a new subplot in the story’s middle, readers tend to expect that. It can be less predictable and potentially far more exciting to conclude a subplot in the middle of the book.
While not all plots lend themselves to opening with a subplot, and most books don’t, doing so can be effective whenever there’s a plausible reason for delaying the start of the central conflict.
Some stories require a longer setup than others. For example, the current trend in modern mysteries is to delay the murder almost to the middle of a novel. This allows readers to get acquainted with the victim-to-be and to see how this individual’s behavior contributes to motivating the other characters into potential violence. By striking the victim down in the book’s center, an exciting and pivotal plot event occurs that keeps the middle section from sagging.
The Dick Francis novel, ODDS AGAINST, has remained in print since its first publication in the 1960s. This is due to the complex arc of change within the protagonist. The book opens with the subplot of the protagonist being shot and undergoing a slow recovery. As soon as he’s on his feet, the mystery investigation of sabotage against a seedy racetrack begins and carries the story forward.
In the classic film, CASABLANCA, the central story line is delayed until after Rick the protagonist is introduced, the political situation is dramatized, and Ilsa and her husband Viktor arrive at Rick’s cafe in search of safe passage from north Africa.
While delay involves advanced writing technique and it’s seldom advisable to delay the central plot for long, a small subplot can engage reader interest while you acquaint readers with your protagonist and story world. Tying off that subplot then–as mentioned above–becomes an exciting little spike within the book’s second act.
You can use subplots to generate additional forces of antagonism against the protagonist. These serve to make life more difficult for the main character, but they can focus on a romance or create comic relief from the central plot’s violence or tensions.
To return to the CASABLANCA film as an example, the central plot involves the love story between Rick and Ilsa. There is also a political subplot revolving around Ilsa’s husband, an anti-Nazi agitator desperate to escape arrest by the Germans. Additionally, the movie contains a thriller subplot that deals with a petty crook’s attempt to steal possession of vital passports. There’s a tiny subplot about the corrupt police chief’s attempt to seduce a young bride, also a political subplot with the arrival of German forces in Casablanca, and an endearing little cameo of an elderly couple trying to practice their English in preparation for immigrating to America. That’s a lot to pack into a two-hour movie.
Many threads can add dimension to a story, but beware the temptation to overload your book with more subplots than are good for it. Subplots that don’t focus on the protagonist will tend to split attention away from the central story line. This is how some writers–despite good intentions–lose their way in the dismal swamp.
If a subplot is threatening to overtake the rest of your story, or it’s splitting the focus away from your central plot, then it needs to be de-emphasized. You can do this by not dramatically presenting certain key elements in scenes and reducing the number of pages you devote to it.
On the other hand, if such a vibrant, compelling subplot takes over by consuming your imagination, then ask yourself if this subplot should be your central plot instead. That could involve enormous revision work and a complete rewriting, but if it will make a better book, by all means consider it.
If you’re planning a multiple-viewpoint story, keep in mind that each POV is in fact running a subplot, with that POV character serving as the mini-protagonist of this smaller story line. There will be a small central goal and story question to be answered in the subplot’s mini-climax with a YES or NO.
This is why indulging in an over-abundance of viewpoints can make juggling subplots complicated. Until you feel ready to tackle something so ambitious, you might prefer instead to confine yourself to the protagonist’s viewpoint, with maybe an internal arc of change subplot.
Beware, also, the so-called “inspired idea” of dividing a book between two characters. Such a construction focuses equally on two parallel plot lines or two equally important viewpoint characters. I’m mentioning it only because it’s become trendy in teen fiction in recent years, yet it is a misuse of classic story design principles and leads to a split focus that in turn botches climax construction.
Classic story design involves a hierarchy of importance with the protagonist being the star character. The protagonist receives the most viewpoint pages–if not all of them. The protagonist’s goal drives the central plot and forms the main story question. Anything else is split focus.
Therefore, the most important plot thread in a book should be the one driven by the protagonist’s objective–and not resolved until the very end of the story.
The next important plot thread is a subplot involving the protagonist’s inner story and/or arc of change.
After that, the next plot thread should belong to the second-most important viewpoint (probably the antagonist).
And so on, moving down in descending order of importance.
Also note that all subplots do not run as long as the main plot because you don’t want everything ending in your book at the same time.