How to Write Subplots

You may have a solid basic story, but now you want to turn that basic read into a compelling and engaging story for your readers. That’s where subplots come in. Subplots add dimension and depth and give you the power to transform a story from basic to epic. Doesn’t that sound amazing?

But before we can tackle how you can add one, two, three or more subplots into your story, let’s talk about what a subplot is and why’s it’s so important.

What is a subplot?

While every story has at least one plot, you may consider adding one or more subplots to further connect events. The subplot serves as a side story—or side mission, in the world of video games—that exists alongside the main plot. They serve the main plot by building upon and strengthening it.

Why are subplots important?

When executed well, subplots can do many good things for your story, including adding to its complexity, additional world building, moderating the pace of your story and forcing it forward, and explores your story’s central themes and motifs deeper than you may have been able to accomplish by solely focusing on your main plot.

Let’s focus on a few of the major things a well-executed subplot can explore and enhance:

Character development and improved characterization

Subplots allow you the chance to show readers how characters grow by showing how they work and communicate with others within the story. You can show their story arc as it progresses different aspects of their personality, how it motivates different responses, and how they ultimately change their perspective.

Subplots are also a great place to bring up character backstory, which also helps with moderating the pacing throughout your story. There’s more to your characters than the current journey they’re on. Hopefully, they’ve got loads of backstory and baggage to build from.

Enhances world building by giving readers a birds-eye global view

Do you have characters who spawn from different corners of your worlds map? Use subplots to explore the different settings and cultures within your story and give your reader that insider’s perspective by showing the different sides of your world through different lenses.

Not only does this add to the complexity and vastness of your story and world, but it gives readers a broader understanding of the world, its communities and people, and the little details every place has.

Subplots feed your story’s central themes

Writing subplots that feed into the core themes of your story is an important highlight not to overlook. Adding depth to your themes and giving your readers additional clues and nuance can help readers see the full picture and tie up loose ends on overarching world and plot events.

These three things—plus the many other things subplots offer, like scene variety and pacing—help encourage reader investment in your story.

What are the different types of subplots?

Mirrored subplots

Mirrored subplots happen when a similar plot path is created, though they don’t generate the same results as the main action of the story. It’s often a part of the story that shows growth and development but isn’t the main plot.

Contrasting subplots

If mirrored subplots are similar, contrasting subplots are opposites. Let’s say you have two characters, your main protagonist and their best friend. Your main protagonist chooses to leap forward into their journey, while they’re best friend chooses to stay behind, at the same time refusing character growth.

A contrasting subplot should show their regression or the opposite of progress and growth; whereas the protagonist will grow and develop and overcome whatever challenge you’ve set out for them.

Complicative subplots

Just like the others, a complicative subplot intersects the main story and changes the main character’s trajectory. It complicates their story and forces important changes to occur. Lesser antagonists or intrusive secondary characters often fall into this category, but it could also be other wrenches thrown into your story to keep readers engaged and turning pages.

While complicating subplots happen outside of the main storyline, they still impact the main plot in big ways and can increase the tension throughout your story.

How to plan and outline your subplots?

But weaving subplots into your main story can be a difficult and trying task, because were you start to open one plot, you may open the door to plot holes. Which are best clogged if you can mange it during the outlining and drafting phases.

The best way to avoid plot holes is to outline each plotline as its own. Using sophisticated writing applications like Scrivener can help, but simple applications like Excel also do the trick!

What you’ll need to do is create an arc for your subplot. While plotters might stick to their guns and map their entire arc from start to finish, others might just figure out the beginning, middle, and end before starting on their story. Whichever method you go about plotting your subplot, there’s no right or wrong way.

Subplots are an integral part of storytelling and they enrich the reader experience, but they should not stand alone. They should supplement and support the main story; not detract from the true story you’re writing.