Subplots can add to the interest and complexity of a novel or they can completely derail the plot. But why one subplot works and not another isn’t always clear.
There are a LOT of blog posts on the uses and pitfalls of subplots. Go ahead, run a Google search to see! I’ve put together my own ideas from years as an avid reader, taking note of when I yawn – or grow annoyed – over a diversion in a novel, and as a writer who loves packing a lot into a story.
First, what do I mean by subplot? A general definition is simply a secondary plot in a novel. Well no wonder that leads to confusion and events that feel unconnected to the story! I like Wikepdia’s definition that describes a subplot as “a secondary strand of the plot that is a supporting side story for any story or the main plot. Subplots may connect to main plots, in either time and place or in thematic significance. Subplots often involve supporting characters, those besides the protagonist or antagonist.”
Now we are getting into why some subplots work and others actually take away from the story.
To me, a subplot should (not may) connect to the main plot in some way. The idea of supporting the main plot is great! Otherwise, if the subplot has absolutely nothing to do with what is going on in the story, why is it in your novel? THAT has become my rule of thumb.
When I’m working on a novel if a side action develops, I stop and ask myself what impact it has on the main plot. Will it slow down a character or speed up the action? Will it cause confusion? When will whatever strange journey this subplot leads me down click into the main plot with a satisfying ‘ah ha!” If never, it doesn’t get a place in the novel. Maybe I’ll use it for a short story, save the idea for another novel, or see if a way to fit it in will happen – maybe using the main characters instead of secondary ones?
Finding a desire to include a subplot is an opportunity to look at the main plot as well. As the writer, why do you feel a need for a diversion? Are things too tense and some humor is needed? Can the main characters create that without something unrelated happening? Maybe the main plot need tweaked. Has it bogged down and become boring? Or perhaps a subplot is exactly the level of complexity that the main plot needs.
Working on Games of Fire has added a new worry with subplots: the story starts with three!
Games of Fire takes place after my epic fantasy series the Rise of the Fifth Order ends. It continues in the the same world using many of the same characters. I’ve jumped into other series before that are continuations and been lost, and not just because of references to prior events. I don’t know the characters, or care much about them yet, and when the action starts, it is happening before I’m ready!
Writing the beginning of Spark of Defiance, book 1 of the series, gave me the same feeling. As the writer, I knew the characters and that the three, equally weighted plot lines led to something big. But the reader in me said ‘ick.’ There was nothing strong and riveting to grasp hold of. So even though I’m only on chapter 9 of a story that will exceed 30 chapters, I reorganized the beginning.
The first minor plot that develops into action became my main plot. The others are subplots that affect the problems developing in the main one, adding fuel to the fire. I rearranged the chapters so that the main plot took paramount place and a reader would recognize the growing story there without getting lost with new characters and unrelated information. I might, not sure yet, even flesh out the beginning of the main plot more. I want it to be the obvious entry point to the story. I simply might need to devote a few chapters to getting it going before bringing in the first subplot. I’ll keep that in mind as I continue writing.
For now, I’m much happier with the beginning. I’m not lost when I read the story: the ‘hero’ and problem are well defined. The subplots with re-introduced characters thread their way into a main strand that becomes quite the piece of knotwork. But I’ll have to keep an eye on everything so that it develops slowly enough a reader doesn’t give up before they see how it all comes together! A complicated storyline across a trilogy can be tricky.
What about you? Do you use subplots? When and why?