Subplots are a challenge for any writer. Your novel or story will have a theme, conflicts, character growth for your protagonist, and some kind of resolution fitting for your work. Writing better subplots requires understanding those things, but also working on your underlying plotlines as individual stories.
How do you even learn to do that?
Readers love subplots because they add depth to your fictional world and characters they’ll fall in love with. Subplots are the tumultuous relationship between Henry DeTamble and Ingrid in The Time Traveler’s Wife and the family drama that creates the tension in Romeo and Juliet outside of the titular characters.
These are a few tips to keep in mind as you practice wielding and writing subplots in future stories/novels.
Pick a Subplot Theme
Just like main plot lines, subplots always serve a purpose. Although that can be specific to your characters, you can also craft them around themes like:
- Love vs. hate
- Life vs. death
- Achieving vs. failing
- Good vs. evil
- Growth vs. regression
Let’s say your novel is about a travel influencer who falls in love with being a grocery store manager. They may be friends with someone who becomes a rival because they view the career change as a regression, but then the rival experiences a regression of their own that makes them realize that no one can define happiness for anyone else.
Their rivalry could fuel the protagonist to work harder or find more joy in their life, then feel supported when the rival turns back into a friend who cheers them on. That’s a much more interesting story than someone who switches jobs.
Give Your Subplot Purpose
Your subplot could be an integral part of your plot line. Think about making it something like:
- The inciting incident
- A complication during the plot’s rising action
- The main conflict
- The emotional/physical resolution
- The humorous through-line that keeps your story light
Katniss’ love triangle with Gale makes her budding relationship with Peeta more interesting in The Hunger Games (because it’s one of the many complications in the plot’s rising action).
Losing Prim wouldn’t feel like a primary part of the Hunger Games series’ climactic events if there wasn’t a continual subplot of Katniss loving her, doing anything for her, and trying to get home to her.
Give Your Subplot Time
You may not always start writing a story or novel with all of your subplots in mind. I know I’ve gone back to manuscripts and edited them a year, two years, or many more years later because I’ve thought of a subplot that merges the themes or character arcs more effectively.
There’s no harm in going back during your editing phase to develop subplots or even remove them if your manuscript is too dense. Giving yourself time to sit with your work and feel things out will help you know if something’s worth writing, adding, or removing.
Your beta readers could also inspire your subplots! They might want more explanation between a character’s growth in Chapter One vs. Chapter 5. Maybe they think your protagonist needs more motivation to achieve their goal. Subplots could be the best way to address those challenges if you find that the notes are deserving of your attention.
Start Writing Better Subplots
It can take time and practice to write subplots as effortlessly as your primary plot line. Give yourself space to try, fail, and try again. You’ll get more comfortable with them as your writing skills grow stronger.