10 BEST Tips for Writing Subplots
We’re talking about subplots! I love subplots. I love writing them. I love talking about them. I've got a whole chapter devoted to them in Shut Up and Write the Book. But right now we are taking a deep dive into how to think up subplots, how to write them properly, and which mistakes you should definitely avoid. Pay close attention to these mistakes because they will fuck your manuscript right up. Tip number five is the most important, so ingrain that one in your brain.
This topic was requested by one of my patrons over on Patreon, Vincent B. Jobson. I made a video about the benefits of subplots years ago, but Vincent wanted more information on the topic. Specifically, how to weave your subplots into the story itself. So, I am breaking down my ten best tips for writing subplots. Let’s get into it!
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Number 1: Let’s Start With the Basics
What is a subplot? A subplot is a secondary plot in your novel. It's a smaller story that occurs alongside the larger primary focus, without overtaking it, at least in theory. We'll talk about that a bit more later.
A lot of writers confuse their subplots with their main plot. Sometimes the difference is obvious. If you're writing a story about saving the world or falling in love, then it's gonna be pretty clear. But if your story is a bit more complex or multi-genre, you may struggle to determine which content is the primary focus, and what's more on the sidelines.
The easiest way to determine this is to take the concept in question and imagine it's been removed from the story entirely. Can your plot still exist without this content in it? Sure, it might be less entertaining, and maybe you have to delete a scene or two, but the point is, could you still tell your story? If the answer is yes, you're looking at a subplot. They're connected to the main plot, but not pivotal to the overall story.
Number 2: Consider Characterization
A lot of people aren't sure what sort of subplots to include, and if that's the case, look at your characters. Your primary plot is going to reveal a specific side of your characters, especially your main character. If we're writing action-adventure, we're going to see their heroism and cunning. If you're writing a tragedy, you're gonna see their vulnerability and grief. Subplots give you the opportunity to expand their characterization and show a different side of them. What side are you interested in exposing?
Your primary plot is going to reveal a specific side of your characters, especially your main character. Subplots give you the opportunity to expand their characterization and show a different side of them.
I recommend showing a part of their personality that the main plot doesn't really get into. If your plot requires your character to be a hard-ass, consider a subplot that reveals their softer side. You can write about their relationship with their family, or maybe include a romantic subplot. Character depth is one of the greatest benefits of subplots, so look there when brainstorming.
Number 3: Explore Relationships
More often than not, subplots revolve around character relationships. Usually, they revolve around familial relationships, friendships, working relationships, sexual relationships, or romantic relationships. If you're not sure where to take your subplots, start there. Look at the people in your main character's life, or even better, look at the people you forgot to include in your main character's life. Have you ever read a book about a teenager living at home, but somehow their parents are never mentioned? (That makes a whole lot of sense . . .) Addressing their relationship with their parents will not only add depth to your story and characters, but it will also help fill a monumental plot hole.
Number 4: Realism
If you are writing any type of fantastical story with unbelievable elements, subplots are going to be a great asset to you because they help provide realism. If your book is about werewolves, monsters, or magic, all of these things are wonderful and entertaining but they're not particularly believable.
They don't need to be realistic, but you do need some level of believability in your story to ground the readers. Usually, believability comes from the characters and their relationships. That's why subplots are such an asset when it comes to realism because as we already covered, they focus on character relationships. A book about sexy vampires could be a little hard to believe on its own, but if you add a subplot about a friendship on the rocks or sibling rivalry, it suddenly becomes a lot more realistic. People can relate to that. When the dynamics are realistic, it's a lot easier for readers to get invested in the story and feel as though they're experiencing it alongside the characters.
Number 5: Connect It to the Plot
This is the most important tip when it comes to writing subplots. When crafting your subplots you have to connect them to the main plot. Otherwise, it is going to feel like filler. Yes, deepening characterization is wonderful. Yes, we love some good character relationships. But if that is all that your subplots do, it is going to feel shoehorned in and unnecessary.
Fortunately, it's really easy to make sure your subplots are linked to the plot. Simply make sure that the characters involved in your subplots are also involved in the main plot somehow. Say you're writing about a princess trying to reclaim her kingdom, and you want to write a romantic subplot. Maybe she falls in love with one of the soldiers aiding her cause. Just like that, your romantic subplot is linked to your main plot and they feel intertwined. Say you’re writing about a vampire slayer and you want a family subplot. Maybe the slayer is feeling a ton of guilt because she's lying to her parents about her slaying ways. Now you've included a subplot about emotional turmoil that is directly caused by the main plot. Basically, so long as it's connected to the plot in some way, the subplot will feel intentional and important.
Number 6: Rein It In
This is probably the worst mistake you can make when it comes to writing subplots. Don't let 'em overtake the plot! If you're not sure if your subplots are overtaking the plot, take a look at them chapter by chapter. Every single chapter should include at least one plot point that moves the story forward. But subplots don't need to be featured in every chapter. In fact, it's fine if a chapter doesn't include any subplots at all.
Now, it’s okay if a single chapter predominantly focuses on a subplot, but that chapter still needs to move the main plot forward in some way. No chapter should be 100% subplot and nothing else. And since you've linked your subplots to your main plot, this should be doable.
When this issue gets particularly bad, you end up with sagging middle syndrome, which is basically where the middle of your book is boring. You're not moving the plot forward, and even though subplots are entertaining in their own right, they're not what the reader signed up for. Your main plot is the promise you made to your readers, so it's important to make sure you keep the subplots to the side.
Number 7: Mix It Up
Speaking of looking at your story chapter by chapter, this is the best way to weave in your subplots. A great chapter utilizes what I refer to as the “rollercoaster method.” This basically means that every single chapter begins on a different emotional tone than how it ends. If you started on a high, you wanna end on a low. And if you started on a low, you wanna end up on a high.
This is when subplots really come in handy. Say your chapter opens with an intense battle sequence. This is probably going to trigger suspense and fear in your readers. You wanna make sure the chapter ends in a completely different emotional state, something that's on the opposite end of the spectrum. You could use a subplot in order to craft this emotional shift. Maybe the battle is over and now your hero is being bandaged up by the man he loves. Just like that, you switched from the main plot to the romantic subplot by utilizing the rollercoaster method.
I definitely recommend keeping this in mind while you're outlining your novel. It's much easier to weave subplots into your story during the outlining phase. That way, you can take a look at your outline chapter by chapter and make sure you're keeping that emotional shift going.
Number 8: Consider Your Themes
If you're still not sure what kind of subplots to include, consider the theme of your novel, at least if you've got one. What kind of message are you trying to convey? Your subplot could be another avenue for making this point. Say you're writing a novel about a princess coming into her own, and you're trying to evoke themes of self-confidence and empowerment. Your subplots could easily portray this message as well. Maybe she has a shitty relationship with the other princesses from other kingdoms. They make fun of her and belittle her, but through the course of the novel, she's able to stand up for herself and gain their respect. Thus your subplot helps to reinforce your main plot's theme, which will drive it home for readers.
Number 9: Don’t Overcomplicate It
Subplots are great, but your story doesn't need fifty of them. When you stuff your novel full of subplots, it stops adding depth and just creates confusion. There are too many storylines to sift through and the purpose of the story gets muddled. It also increases your odds of falling into sagging middle syndrome because you're wasting too many precious pages on your subplots and your main plot is being neglected. Don't overcomplicate it. A few subplots are fine, but after that, you really gotta calm down.
Number 10: Resolutions
As you hopefully know, your plot needs to be resolved by the end of your book (aka the resolution). The same goes for your subplots. Now, your subplots don't have to be resolved in your novel's resolution. They can be resolved at any time in the book, but it needs to happen at some point. You can't just leave a subplot dangling, readers are gonna think you majorly fucked up–which, to be fair, you did.
The only exception to this is if you're writing a series and plan to carry that subplot into the next book. But usually, even in this situation, there's some kind of cliffhanger that lets readers know shit ain’t over. In The Savior’s Sister, one of my subplots was about Raphael blackmailing Leila. Their relationship progresses and evolves through the course of the novel, but by the time we get to the end, it's not really over. Instead, when Raphael leaves the palace, he kind of implies that he regretted his decision. This in turn lets readers know that this subplot is not over and will continue on in The Savior's Army.
So that's all I've got for you today!
If you wanna learn more about writing subplots, and literally every other aspect of writing a book, check out Shut Up and Write the Book. A huge thank you to Vincent B. Jobson for requesting today's topic. If you'd like the chance to have a video dedicated to you, or if you want access to tons of other awards, check me out on Patreon. We have an exclusive writing group, you get early access to my videos, there are monthly live streams, there are signed books—it's awesome! You don’t want to miss out.
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