On the Art of Sub-Plots
A subplot is a secondary plot strand that is a supporting side story for any story or the main plot. Subplots may connect to main plots, in either time and place or in thematic significance. Subplots often involve supporting characters, those besides the protagonist or antagonist.
Personally, when planning out my story, sub-plots don’t really play on my mind until I’m actually writing – what prompts them is when I write more about my supporting characters, I feel more empathy for them and want to delve a little deeper into their lives. Your readers should feel the same – they should be compelled to your secondary cast, and be intrigued.
Why should you use sub-plots? The definition above points out one very significant point: ‘connect to main plots…in thematic significance’. Although your protagonist may not be experiencing the events in your sub-plots, they and the reader can both learn from the moral, or this can intensify their problems or add emotional significance, and tug at the strings of your reader. In addition to this, if the main plot of your story is plot-driven and full of action, a sub-plot can fulfil the characterisation needed in the story and vice versa.
How many sub-plots should you have in one story? It all depends on the length of your story. In a novella, I would suggest no more than one. In a full length novel, two or three at the very most. Too many sub-plots can distract and confuse the reader from the main plot – if you are coming up with too many sub-plots you want to use, fulfil your desire by writing it in a completely different story!
How to use sub-plots: Ensure that your sub-plot, therefore, does not stray too far away from the main plot – find a way to link them and even have the sub-plot effect the resolution of the main story. Imagine your story like a spider web – and your subplots as the surrounding links, when you touch one, the whole web is affected too.
The most common use of sub-plots is interweaving a romantic storyline. It works especially with stories to relieve tension, or with characters that seem to have ‘a bit lacking’ in their lives. There are, however, alternatives too.
You might consider introducing another character that undergoes a similar experience as your protagonist, or has a relationship with the antagonist but this is not revealed till the end, or is in a quest to find some information for your main character. Be inventive, but hopefully you will find that your sub-plots will be inspired by your characters.