Too Many Subplots? 3 Tips for Cutting


There are two types of first-drafters for novels: those who write too short and must expand and those who write too much and must cut. Today, we’ll talk to those who need to cut when they revise their story.

One complaint for drafts that are too long is that they have too many plots. The first draft is to help you figure out your story; the next drafts are to figure out how to tell that story in the most dramatic way. That’s good theory, but let’s make it more practical. Where do you cut? What criteria do you use?

Who hurts the most? The most dramatic stories will be the most emotional stories. One criteria for revising is to ask, “Who hurts the most?” Where in the story do you find the most emotion, where is the most at stake?

Drama means that something is at stake: the survival of the species, survival of a town or community, survival of a teen in the midst of teasing or bullying, survival of a closely held dream. As you look over your plot and subplot, one goal of revision is to cut subplots with nothing at stake, while raising the stakes in everything you have left.

Who hurts the most in your story?

For example, if a teen is worried about surviving a bout of teasing, raise the stakes by putting a love interest close by to watch. Now, the teen is risking both safety, pride and the love-of-her-life.

Does something actually happen in this subplot? Let’s say that you take out subplot A. Does the story change? Is this subplot integral to the story, so important that omitting it will change the whole tenor of the story or novel. Some subplots are just fun detours: omit them. Some subplots add flavor or setting or deepens a character; and yet, nothing really happens. If you take bits and pieces of the subplot and slot them into the remaining subplots, you won’t miss the subplot at all. Do the actions of this subplot really advance the story or not? Is this subplot crucial to the story or not? IF not, be ruthless and cut.

Add a subplot. What? I have a story that is too long, but you say to add a subplot. Not exactly. Maybe, though, you can take the extra bits and pieces and restructure them to create a subplot. Instead of disconnected bits, can you build a narrative arc–a subplot–from them? (And while you’re at it, make it all shorter!) Remember that a subplot, by definition, doesn’t have as many plot points as the main plot. So, pick and choose only the strongest scenes to create this new subplot. While you’re at it, try to interweave the subplots and plots to make a more coherent whole. Have the climax of the subplot become a plot-point in the main plot. Failure to defeat the bully means that the teen winds up in the hospital, which means she can’t attend the prom.