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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
© Amanda Patterson
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- Seven Extremely Good Reasons to Write the Ending First
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