SubPlots Deepen and Enrich Stories: Here’s How

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I’ve been reading through the first book in Rick Riordian’s new series, The Lost Hero. He has a nice breezy style that is full of adventure. And I’ve especially been noticing the subplots. There is an overarching plot of overthrowing evil and setting the universe to rights again. But each character has a specific role in that plot and his/her own subplot. Jason, Piper and Leo must each struggle with their parental god and what that heritage means. Each must overcome weaknesses and obstacles.

In other words, built into the basic structure of these stories is a rich set of characters, each with his/her own subplot.

Plan for subplots in your novel

Before you write your next story, ask yourself if your cast of characters are richly and deeply drawn. Does each have a subplot that will feed into the main plot? For my WIP, I realized that the main character was rich and deep, but the supporting characters were vague, aimless. I am working now to enrich them before I start writing.

One main question is how will the secondary characters feed into the main plot. The subplot must be tangent to the main plot in some way, deal with similar issues or sub-issues or something that adds to the main plot. It can be a surprise, or an enrichment, or a contrast. But the relationship can’t be random.

I am also thinking about settings and wondering if some settings from one subplot can be reused in another subplot or the main plot. Props can also be reused. In other words, what can I use to tie the plot and subplot together in richer, deeper ways?

Writing a subplot in your novel

Subplots, by definition, are sub. They don’t take up as much space as the main plot; the emotional resonance isn’t as great as the main plot. Some subplots I’ve dealt with seem to take over a story. The challenge is to get the balance right, so the reader is never surprised at what happens. I’m monitoring the emotional impact of subplot scenes v. main plot scenes. How much space does each take up? What’s at stake in each? The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing; but at the same time, keep the sub thing a rich little thing that enriches the main thing.

Revising a subplot in your novel

Generally, I need to enrich subplots, my first drafts are thin. Again, I am looking for ways to interconnect subplots and the main plot, ways to reuse bits of dialogue, settings, props or otherwise mirror events. It’s a time to stand back and evaluate the subplot for what it adds to the story (or what it could add with revision) and make sure it is pulling it’s weight.

Subplots enrich and deepen stories. My job this week is to work on my secondary characters and give them substantial subplots.

2 Comments
  • Ann de forest
    August 21, 2012

    Thanks as always for informative and helpful post. I wanted to add this tip from Laurie Calkhoeven’s workshop on plotting using a 3-act structure. She said to apply a 3-act structure to subplots as well. As I examine my own subplots more carefully, this has proved to be very useful advice.
    Thanks again.
    I’m a big fan of your blog.
    Ann

  • Darcy Pattison
    August 21, 2012

    Thanks! Yes, it would help to make sure the beginning, middle and end of sub-plots are the right structure. Great tip.
    Darcy