The Ultimate Guide to Plot (Part 2): Subplots

Hey, Lovelies!

I hope everyone is doing well! I have to say I am kinda excited that it’s Friday the 13th tomorrow. The superstitious stuff is always interesting and entertaining. For those of you who do take things a bit more seriously, here’s an article by the Farmer’s Almanac on how to improve your luck.

As previously mentioned, we’ll be talking about plot for the next few weeks. I have about five more topics lined up about plot. I was a little surprised about that as well. I didn’t think there would be a whole bunch out there or that many topics related to plot, but the more I thought about it, the more topics I came up with.

This week, however, we’re going to be covering subplots. So, let’s dive in with our definition:

Subplot: is a literary device that supports the main plot and adds complexity and depth to a story. It is also known as a “minor story,” or as “B” or “C” story.

Your subplot is the second story within the greater story (can anyone say metafiction?). Subplots are there to add a little extra oomph to your theme, character development, and the overall story.  They add variety to our plots in many different ways:

  • They keep things interesting. Subplots allow us to gain different perspectives as well as introduce complications.
  • They support central themes in your story by giving additional examples of that theme in operation.
  • Subplots increase tension. This can be introduced into the story in three ways: someone knows too much, romance, or conflict.
  • They provide multiple points of view. With subplots, you don’t need to stick to one viewpoint, which can provide your reader with information that your protagonist might not have.
  • They help you with pacing. Being able to switch things up between your main plot and subplot can slow the pace of your story, creating intrigue and suspense while also giving your reader a chance to process what happened in a previous scene.
  • Subplots help create rounded, dynamic characters. They help us weave in the backstory of a character more naturally as well as gives us insights into different facets of a character’s personality.

These are all benefits of adding a subplot to your story. However, there are a variety of ways to incorporate subplot into your novel.


Seven Types of Subplot

According to Writer’s Digest, there are seven types or ways to add subplots to your novel.

The Isolated Chunk

As the title suggests, you can add a subplot to your story in isolates chunks. One of the best examples of this can be found in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The novel was written as a picaresque, which is essentially a journey story in which every distinct episode has an effect on the hero, resulting in the hero’s maturation from boy to man. Each section often serves to satirize hypocrisies of the times in which the story was written. In Huckleberry Finn, Twain introduces two church-going yet blood-feuding families into Huck’s life, then out again.

A more modern and less known example would be in Christina Lauren’s novel, Love and Other Words. The main story is continually interrupted with isolated flashbacks from the protagonists’ past, explaining to the reader why things are the way they are.

Here’s how to incorporate it:

Forget transitions and just start a new section or chapter. Tell your story-within-a-story, and then return to your main narrative. If your narrative is solely in the first person, you’ll find this technique especially useful, as your main character can experience only one thing at a time.

The Parallel Line 

The parallel line subplot either never touches the main storyline at all during the narrative, or they come together at the very end of the novel. I’m going to use Writer’s Digest’s example here:

“A prime example of parallel plotting is Frederick Forsyth’s cat-and-mouse classic, The Day of the Jackal. Early in the novel, we meet a nameless professional—later known as Jackal—negotiating an assassination. Soon we’re shown the police becoming aware of a conspiracy. From then on, Forsyth cuts back and forth between the Jackal doing his work and the police inspector Lebel doing his, and the result is electrifying. The two plots converge only at the very end when Lebel and the Jackal meet.”

Here’s how to do it:

Start your story with your main plot and get going with your chief cast of characters, especially your hero. Then insert the beginning of your second plot. Switch back and forth between the stories as evenly as you can; this will emphasize their symmetrical and diametric natures.

You can make your parallel plot any size and significance that suits you. This is especially useful for a protagonist-antagonist story, like many thrillers, mysteries and young adult tales. If your parallel plot is a minor subplot, simply give it less real estate relative to your main plot.

The Swallowtail 

The swallowtail method is essentially two parallel plot points that converge pointedly for an extended period, creating an intense feeling of suspense within your story. The difference between parallel and swallowtail subplots is that the swallowtail stories always converge and interact with each other for a long time. Parallel plots may never converge, and if they do, it is usually briefly at the story’s end.

Swallowtail stories start with one plot and then launch into a completely different tale once the original plot is up and running. This makes the reader wonder how one story or set of characters have to do with the other, creating suspense. It supposed to seem like the two lines of action are entirely independent of one another, but eventually, they move closer to each other, heightening the reader’s anticipation. When they do come together, both plots gain complexity as the story moves forward, and it creates a feeling of satisfaction for the reader.

For example:

Plot 1: It’s the big day of the nursery school picnic. The kids arrive at the park, and the teacher and moms unpack the coolers.

Plot 2: A man angrily drives to a bar for a drink.

Plot 1: The kids play tag while the hot dogs cook.

Plot 2: The man downs five whiskeys in a row.

Plot 1: The moms run after a kid who’s strayed into the street.

Plot 2: The man gets into his pickup truck.

Plot 1: The kids start in on the potato chips and hot dogs.

Plot 2: The man decides to take a shortcut on the park’s service road.

Here’s how to do it:

Alternating between two or more parallel plots (more than three can confuse the reader) makes your separate characters and their stories converge on a joint point. In the previous example, the joint point is a place. But you could also choose a person as a joint point, a family, or an event, such as a political rally or a natural disaster.

The In and Out 

The in and out method uses a cast of different characters to push the main plot forward. The best example of this subplot is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (side note: if you haven’t read this book, I highly recommend it – it’s a favorite of mine and very well done.).

To Kill a Mockingbird follows the story of Atticus as he goes through an unprecedented trial. It’s told through the eyes of his daughter, who relates the tale through her interactions with other characters. Those characters make up a bunch of vignettes that move the novel and its subplots along.

How to do it:

Let your subplots shuttle in and out as needed. For example, you can bring a mentor into the first or second chapter, have him dispense some advice, then send him off on a journey that may have nothing to do with your story. He comes back in the seventh chapter and is once again available for consultation with your hero. He might have encountered trouble while away, even trouble he brings back with him (in the form, say, of a sketchy sidekick).

If you’re using a first-person narrator and want to show a subplot out of his range,  you can drop in chapters written in third person, then return to your first-person narrator. This is a technique that many contemporary writers use.

The Bookend

Readers love symmetry, which makes the bookend subplot technique a winning solution. What happens here is you introduce something early in the story and then wrap it up at the end.

An excellent example of this is in Katheryn Stockett’s novel The Help. Minny gets fired by her boss reasonably early in the book and is seen giving her former employer a chocolate pie. For all the cruelty that occurred in this story, it was a fitting end.

Remember, the bookend subplot doesn’t always have to be about revenge. It can be just as fitting for different emotional impacts, such as reuniting mother and daughter after a fight.

The Bridge Character

This is a character that connects events, characters, and worlds together. They are extremely helpful and useful.

For example:

You have a respected doctor who’s in debt to her bookie, and you have a hydrocodone addict who doctor-shops for his drugs. This character becomes a bridge between the tidy world of the troubled doctor and the dangerous world of the streets.

Here’s how to do it:

Invent a character who is as different from your current crop as possible—someone who occupies a separate world. Or start with the two worlds you want to bridge, and think up a character who can do it. Doctors, lawyers, counselors and clergy all have great potential as bridge characters. Why? Because people end up telling them their secrets.

The Clue

This one is going to be for all of you mystery writers out there. You need to drop clues in your subplots to help unravel the crime to your detective and your audience. However, remember that the clue to your reader is different than a hint for your fictional characters.

Here’s how to do it:

Plant clues early and often, noting an important distinction: A clue for your fictional sleuth is a different thing than a clue for your reader. Some of the most intriguing clues have sprung from the minds of authors who had a great idea for a clue but not the slightest notion how it would work out—but put it in anyway, hoping for the best.

On the other hand, if you want to plant a clue for your readers, start by considering your ending. Let’s say you’ve got a dead body in the beginning and Percy Perpetrator begging for mercy at the end. If he did it with the lead pipe in the library, you might permit a minor character, early on, to remark that Percy is writing his dissertation on cellulose-destroying organisms. An astute reader might realize that most paper is made of wood fibers, which are composed of cellulose. Hmm. Where’s a lot of paper? The library!

Subplot Do’s and Don’t’s

This is all good and well, but what should you do when writing a subplot, and what should you avoid? I’ve compiled the list for you:

  • Create an arc for each subplot. Subplots should typically begin and end with your main storyline. Make sure that you’re wrapping up every subplot by the end of your story!
  • Subplots cannot and should not be able to stand on their own. The idea here is that subplots complement the main plot of your story – it shouldn’t compete with or steal the spotlight.

Here’s what Jenna Moreci tells writers not to do when writing a subplot (go to the 6:05 mark):

Phew! That was hard work! At least there isn’t a huge list of do’s and don’t’s. As long as you follow the guidelines of writing a plot, you should be fine. 

That’s it for me this week! As always, I hope this was helpful in some way, shape, or form. Just remember that subplots should enhance your main story – not detract or distract from it.

Next week we shall be talking about how plot structures can differ across different mediums.

Until next week!



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Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams is a writer and editor for a local marketing agency. She has formerly worked as a writer for the Investing News Network and as an editor for Whetstone, a bi-annually published literary magazine. Aside from writing, Danielle has an unabiding love for all marine life and the outdoors. She loves taking long hikes with her husband and cooking delicious meals in the kitchen.


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