What is a sub-plot?
A sub-plot is a plot that supports your main plot. Like your plot, it should have a character who pursues a story goal and encounters setbacks and conflict because of these actions. It should also reach a resolution of some kind. If your character succeeds in attaining the goal of the main plot, it could be a good idea for a failure in the sub-plot.
Tip: The main plot begins and ends the novel. Sub-plots should begin and end within the main plot.
Why should you have one?
Sub-plots add layers and texture to your novel, because they:
- Show different perspectives of the central conflict in the story
- Test your main characters’ motivations and abilities to achieve their goals
- Show different aspects of the protagonist’s personality
If your sub-plot does not do at least one of these, it will feel like a stand-alone story within your novel. This will irritate most readers. A good way to see if your sub-plot adds to your book is to see if your main story changes if you remove it. If it does not, you do not need it. Save it for another book.
1. Love. The love interest is the most common sub-plot. Remember that it does not have to be a romantic love interest. It should be a person or an animal that your protagonist loves. It could be a friend, a pet, or a family member. Writers use love interests to support protagonists and to thwart them by threatening their well-being.
2. Growth. You can use a character’s emotional, spiritual or intellectual learning curves in this type of sub-plot. Protagonists do not always get what they want, but in a good story, they get what they need. This sub-plot shows a character’s story arc. A wizard who learns that real love is not part of a magic trick, or a detective whose definition of faith changes when he or she investigates a crime committed by a religious leader, is interesting.
3. Habits, Addictions, Traits. These can complicate matters for your main characters and make them more realistic. A ruthless politician with an interesting addiction, a corporate lawyer with an OCD, or an unfaithful wife who volunteers at a homeless shelter, becomes intriguing.
4. Fear. If you make your characters vulnerable in some way, you can use this as a sub-plot. A soldier may be terrified of flying, but he or she has to deal with this to perform duties. An attractive forensic specialist may be unable to cope with intimate relationships because of the death of a spouse.
5. Dreams. This sub-plot shows a hidden or delayed desire of the protagonist. He or she may want to study or visit a foreign city, or learn how to dance, paint or write. If the main plot is violent or action-packed, it is a good idea to make one of the sub-plots more reflective.
6. Comedy. This sub-plot should only be used if you are naturally funny. There may be comic relief in a tense plot, but it usually comes from a character who is not the protagonist. If you are writing a novel with a serious theme and sombre mood, some light relief may be necessary.
Top Tip: Too many sub-plots spoil the broth. Don’t overdo it. One or two sub-plots are usually enough.Never let the sub-plot detract from the primary plot. It should add colour and texture. If it does not, it is not the right one for your story.
© Amanda Patterson
- The Romantic Sub-Plot – 6 Uncommon Romantic Love Interests
- The Top 10 Tips for Plotting and Finishing a Book
- The Author’s Promise – two things every writer should do
- What is the difference between a commercial and a literary plot?
- 17 Ways To Make your Novel More Memorable
- 7 Extremely Good Reasons to Write the Ending First