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What Is a Subplot?
In fiction writing, the definition of a subplot is a side story that runs parallel to the main plot. It has a secondary strand of characters and events that can infuse important information into the main storyline. Also known as a minor story, a subplot creates a richer, more complex narrative arc in novel writing and other storytelling mediums.
3 Reasons to Use Subplots in Your Writing
A subplot is a narrative thread that is woven through a book to support the elements of the main plot. A subplot can build out the conflict in the main plot or it can be a vehicle for a secondary character’s storyline. Either way, subplots have their own story arc. Here are several reasons why authors use subplots when writing a novel:
- Subplots add depth. Weaving several plot lines through a story creates a multilevel narrative arc. A story with just a main plot can come off as flat, but a story with subplots in addition to the main plot has complexity and depth. This makes the story more engaging for readers.
- Subplots intensify the conflict. Subplots are a tool that can heighten the tension and intensify the conflict in a story. They can add new plot points that deliver obstacles for the main character that result in a more dramatic climax.
- Subplots enrich character development. A secondary plot can reveal new information about a main character. How the main character interacts with supporting characters in a subplot can shed light on their personality traits and character flaws, making them more vulnerable and three-dimensional.
3 Examples of Subplots From Literature
Here are three examples of subplots from different works of literature:
- Romeo and Juliet: William Shakespeare weaves several subplots throughout this tragic love story. The backstory of the long-running feud between rival families, the Capulets and Montagues, creates the central conflict in the play—two young lovers from warring families desperate to find a way to be together. The subplots involving the warring families create dramatic plot points that escalate the tension, like when Romeo’s best friend Mercutio is killed by Juliet’s cousin Tybalt.
- Harry Potter: J.K. Rowling has multiple narrative strands running underneath the surface of the Harry Potter series. To support one of the central themes of good versus evil, Rowling creates Harry’s aunt and uncle, who believe Harry’s wizarding abilities are evil. In reality, Harry uses his powers against the evil Lord Voldemort. Another secondary storyline is Harry’s relationship with his best friend Ron Weasley and his family. In this example of a subplot, Ron’s father works for the Ministry of Magic, a story element which supplies Harry with all sorts of otherworldly props, like a flying car.
- The Death of Mrs. Westaway: In this thriller by Ruth Ware, the main character, Harriet Westaway, is a young woman, struggling to make ends meet. She receives a mysterious letter that informs her she’s inherited a fortune from a woman she’s never met. Harriet believes this is a case of mistaken identity, but she is reluctant to admit that because of what one of the book’s subplots reveals: She needs to pay off the loan sharks who are after her.
4 Types of Subplots
When coming up with writing ideas to enhance your main plot, think of using one or more subplots. These could include any of the following:
- Mirror subplot: A smaller-scale conflict mirrors the main character’s in order to teach them a valuable lesson or illuminate how to resolve the conflict.
- Contrasting subplot: A secondary character faces similar circumstances and dilemmas as the main character but makes different decisions with the opposite outcome.
- Complicating subplot: A secondary character makes matters worse for the main character.
- Romantic subplot: The main character has a love interest, and this relationship complicates the main plot.
6 Tips for Writing Better Subplots
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When you’re writing a book, always brainstorm the best subplot ideas that can deepen the tension and make your main character’s scenario more complex. Finding the right way to incorporate subplots can be tricky. Try these six subplot tips when you craft your next narrative:
- Ensure that your subplots play second fiddle. A subplot exists to support your main storyline but should never overpower it. Subplots should end before the main plot. The exception to this rule is a romantic subplot, which often concludes in the final scene.
- Give your subplots a narrative arc. Subplots are stories, too. Create a narrative framework for each, though on a smaller scale than your main plot. Use this technique to tell a supporting character’s story that affects the protagonist’s actions. You might even incorporate flashbacks as a subplot, mirroring a character’s journey with something that happened in their earlier days, like high school.
- Write character-driven subplots. Just like your main story, characters should drive the action in a subplot. Create foils that can highlight qualities in your main character. These characters will either help or hinder the protagonist in the story.
- Try a new POV. Your subplot might provide information that your main character is unaware of. If your main plot is told in first person, try changing the point of view in the subplot to third person.
- Figure out how to connect the subplot and the main plot. There are numerous ways to use subplots. A parallel subplot runs throughout the entirety of the story, showing different sides of the same plot. This builds suspense as the reader waits for the two plots to collide (think The Fugitive). You can also write small, isolated subplots. Briefly introduce a character who drops in early on, then revisit their journey near the end of the story to shed light on the deeper meaning of your main plot.
- Ramp up the tension with a subplot. Propel your main story with information revealed in your side stories. Subplots are a strong medium for foreshadowing events, so use them to drop hints and clues.
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