Friday, February 19, 2021

Writing Subplots


Hello everyone, Winnie Griggs here. Today I wanted to talk a little bit about subplots.

First, let’s define what a subplot is.

According to the Cambridge dictionary a subplot is “a part of the story of a book or play that develops separately from the main story” Some call it the B Story, the minor story or the secondary story line. But whatever you call them, they are minor story and/or character arcs that support and enhance your main story line by adding texture, context, complexity and richness to it.


So why use subplots?

Subplots, when done effectively, add additional depth, texture, richness and dimension to your story. They do this by adding conflict, romance, tragedy, mystery, tension, additional worldbuilding and other elements. In some cases they can add critical information your protagonists in the main story thread may be unaware of.

Some of the ways subplots do this:

  • They add another layer of verisimilitude to your story. After all, people don’t live in a vacuum, they have more than one thing going on in their lives and more than one person/team of people tugging at their attention.  Sub plots can help show that interaction for your protagonists.
  • They help add page count without your story feeling padded or episodic.
  • They can help illustrate or up the stakes.
  • They can improve characterization by allowing the reader to see your protagonist through another set of eyes
  • If you’re writing a series, they can help bring in beloved characters from previous books, or introduce characters that will appear in future books.
  • For mysteries or stories from other genres with a touch of mystery, they can introduce red herrings or obfuscate clues.
  • They can help fine tune the pace of your story, inserting lighter moments into a tense main plot or vice versa, providing your reader with a breather between high octane scenes or add a reminder of the stakes in quieter moments
  • They can serve to temporarily detour, delay or change your protagonists' goals

There are others but we’ll leave it there for now.  By the way, if you can make one subplot perform two or more of these functions it will make your subplot's reason for existence even stronger.


Does every story need a subplot?

Of course short stories don’t. As for longer works, while there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to writing, the truth is that even stories that manage to stand alone with one main plotline can benefit from having a subplot or two, for all the reasons listed above.


So let’s dig into the various Types of Subplots

  • Romantic Subplots
    If you’re writing a romance, you can add a secondary romance between Secondary characters. This is often seen in Hallmark movies, the heroine’s best friend finds love while the main characters are still dancing around the issue.
    If you’re writing any other genre, adding a love interest for your protagonist as a subplot can add interest and complications to your main plot

  • Mirror Subplots
    These are subplots that are similar to or ‘mirror’ some aspect of the protagonists story arc. This is one way to show the stakes. For instance perhaps you have a protagonist who is standing up to a corrupt land developer as is his neighbor. If his neighbor has his home burned to the ground, that graphically illustrates the kind of stakes the protagonist is facing

  • Contrast Subplots
    The opposite of Mirror Subplots, these show what happens when a secondary character makes different choices than your main character. For instance, your protagonist might have chosen to go into the family business after high school, while his brother chose to head to college across the country. Your subplot could illustrate the consequences, positive and/or negative, of those choices.

  • Complicative Subplots
    Subplots that get in the way of your protagonists achieving their goals are a great way to keep the tension and conflict high and the reader turning the pages.

  • Comedic Subplot
    This is a subplot that is intended to lighten the mood and give the reader a chance to smile or take a breath from whatever is happening in the main storyline. Take care when crafting this type of subplot – the timing, genre and overall tone of the story needs to be carefully considered when deciding if your comedic element is appropriate.

  • Character Revelation
    These subplots reveal additional attributes of your story’s protagonists. They can show
    • Character Flaws
    • Character Strengths
    • Character Backstory


How to craft your subplot

The number one thing to remember is that the subplot is just that – subordinate to the main plot. Its sole purpose is to enhance some aspect of the main plot. There should never be any confusion as to which is the main plot and you will want to wrap up all of your subplot threads before the main plot. The only exception to this is the subplot that is going to arc over several books in a series.

Craft your subplot as a mini-story in its own right with an arc of its own – it should have a beginning, middle and end of its own.

Make certain you know how your subplot ties into your  main plot. It can run parallel to it, weave in and out of it or be plopped in in one chunk. Any of these methods can work as long as it does its job of enhancing the main story line.

The timing of introducing and ending your subplots are important to the pacing of your story. You want to maintain the momentum and page turning aspect as much as possible. When the main plot line slows or lags, introducing or returning to a subplot can propel your reader forward.

Make sure you understand the purpose of your subplot. How will it relate to and enhance your main plot. What questions will it raise and/or answer for your protagonists and their goals.

Also make certain the subplot is necessary. Does the function it performs require a subplot or could it b handled more effectively in a different way?


As for the mechanics, as I was researching tis topic, I discover that some writers plot (at a high level) the main plot and each subplot separately, treating each subplot as a separate, simpler story. Once that’s done then they take each subplot, break it into scenes and then see where those scenes fit within the main story. I’ve never actually approached plotting this way, but I find the idea intriguing and may just try it next time I begin plotting a story.


Final Thoughts

There’s a whole lot more than can be said about subplots but I’ll leave it there.

I’ve heard subplots described as connective tissue for your story and  I like that description. If you look up the medical aspects of connective tissue  you’ll find this: The five major functions of connective tissue include: 

  • binding and supporting other tissue in the body, 
  • protecting, 
  • insulating, 
  • storing reserve fuel, and 
  • transporting substances within the body. 

If you replace the word body with the word story you’ll see that subplots can do all of those things.

So when planning your next story, give some careful consideration to what subplots can do if you deliberately and effectively weave them into the fabric of your story (and yes, I know I missed my metaphors)


So let's hear from you. Do you like having subplots in a story?. Can you think of other functions subplots perform or other tips and tricks for crafting them? Do you have a favorite kind of subplot?

Comment to get your name in the hat for your selection of any book in my backlist.


  1. This is like a conference class in a blog post.

    I don't think I've ever seen anyone explain sub-plots in such clear and precise terms with the clarity of a master teacher.

    Winnie, this is such a help to so many folks.

    And a book giveaway!!!!!!

    Double YAY!!!!!

  2. Winnie, as always, you offer up a ton of knowledge. I guess I've never thought about the different types of subplots, but you are correct about the one often used in Hallmark movies. This post is a keeper!

    1. Hi Mindy. Thanks for those kind words. And yep, that seems to be a hallmark staple.

  3. Great post, Winnie!

    One reason why I like writing longer stories (80-100k) is to bring in subplots. I often use more than one in order to take advantage of their different uses.

    In my last series, I used a series-long subplot. I liked the way it tied all three books together, and I was surprised by how involved I became in that subplot and that secondary character! When I figured out his HEA, it brought tears to my eyes. I still love that character. :-)

    This post is a keeper - I'll be pinning to my Seekerville Pinterest board!

    1. Hi Jan. I LOVE reading books with a series long subplot. I've never written one myself but I have an idea that's been tugging at me...

  4. What an interesting post! I had never heard of subplots explained at all, thank you for the giveaway

    1. Hello Angeline, glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for dropping by.

  5. Hi Winnie:

    Your post hit at just the right time! I was reading a LI romance last night on my Kindle and was losing interest fast. When I looked down I saw that I was 40% into the book and there had been almost no story movement! I was not even sure what the main conflict was going to be. I thought then, "This story needs a subplot or shorter chapters that each move the story along."

    I switched to a Harry Bosch mystery that my wife is reading and loving. That LI romance was the third one I switched to a move interesting book. BTW: I switched from LI to LI so it is not the genre that is the problem. This makes me think of the old illusion of looking busy by rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. (I know, I know, the author was engaged in lots of story busywork in order to built a foundation for the budding romance. Do it with actual story movement!)

    One question I have is do you think LI is too short to support solid subplots?

    One subplot I like, and is very hard to do, is to have a second story line that helps the main plot in the ways you mentioned but at the end provides the resolution of the main conflict -- all without the reader ever seeing this coming! It's like getting bamboozled by a really good mystery writer where the reader thinks, "I should have seen that coming all along!"

    I do want subplots to be woven into the fabric of the main plot. One thing I hate, often in family sagas, is for plot and subplot to alternate between chapters. This aggravates me almost every chapter as just when things are getting interesting they move to another story line. (This is like watching a soap opera, as it opens on Friday, and you are finally going to find out who is the real father of little Jimmy, but then they break to a commercial and for the rest of the show they keep coming back to other subplots! You'll have to wait until Monday to hear the gossip! Rotten rat finks these producers!)

    I believe the ideal subplot always enhances the total reading experience and thus makes the story more enjoyable and rewarding than if there was no subplot. If the subplot is only there to provide sequels for the trilogy, then I feel less than happy.


  6. Hi Vince. Glad the timing of the post was good for you. As to your question about LIs, no I don't think they're too short for subplots. I've read a number of them that use subplots. And the one LI I wrote had a couple of (admittedly small) subplots.

    1. Hi Winnie: If you mean "The Heart's Song", that is one of my all time favorite LI contemporary romances. It had the best cast, a very large cast, of sub characters and I wish they had a Kindle version because I'd love to read it again and I need the large print Kindle provides. I'm not sure of the subplots after ten years but I loved all the people in it and expected it to produce a dozen sequels. I just wish you liked writing Contemporary! :(

    2. Oh Vince, thanks for those very kind words! The reason there isn't a kindle version is because they reverted the rights to me and took down the Harlequin versions. I intend to reissue it 'someday' and have toyed with the idea of turning it into a series by writing some follow-up stories for some of those secondary characters

  7. This post needs to be hung in the Posting Hall of Fame! Most excellent explanations, Winnie!

  8. This post was wonderful, and so helpful! Thank you Winnie! I always have subplots for when things get a little bogged down with the main plot, like when the two lovers have a spat and are cooling things down for a half minute. But I have never heard it explained so well! Would love to be in the drawing if it's not too late.

    1. Hi Lynne. So glad you enjoyed the post and it sounds as if you already have a pretty good handle on how to use subplots. And of course I'll throw your name in the hat for the drawing!

  9. What a wonderful post Thank you for sharing and the amazing giveaway!

  10. As a reader, I found your post quite interesting. I think subplots help make a story more realistic. We don't live in a perfect world where we might deal with one thing at a time. We are often juggling a number of circumstances and situations at any one time. So a book, if it is going to be one readers can connect with, needs to have the subplots. Thanks for sharing. When I read these posts by you authors, I know why I'm not an author--too many things to think about to make a good story! So keep writing!! I love to read.

    1. Hello Anne, it's always great to get a reader's perspective on these things. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

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