Love writing fiction? Me too. I started my writing career as a romance novelist. For many years, writing fiction wasn’t profitable. Now it is. My students most common question when writing fiction is about subplots. How do they work?
Subplots are easy. All you need to remember is that a subplot isn’t just an unconnected story dumped into your book to bulk it up; it’s a way of adding richness to your story. A subplot always relates directly to your main story in some way.
For example, let’s say you’re writing a mystery novel. Your sleuth is a female detective. Your story starts with the discovery of a body. The subplot concerns your sleuth’s relationship with her husband. She worries that he’s cheating on her. The subplot not only adds complications to the main story (the sleuth is distracted), it also builds her characterization.
Let’s look at three tips for subplots.
1. Plot Your Main Story First – What Does Your Story Need?
We’ve talked about plotting. Plot your novel first. Now look at what your plot needs for contrast to the main story. Shakespeare created comic characters for contrast in his tragedies, so if your main story is grim, you might create a subplot which adds a little humor.
For example, let’s say you’re plotting a romance novel. It’s a “second chance at love” story. Your heroine’s sworn off men. Her marriage was a disaster. Her ex left her emotionally and financially wrecked. She’s just lost her job. The last thing she’s thinking about is romance. But she’s met a man who excites her. However, he has problems too. He’s dealing with a clinging, neurotic ex, and has as teenage daughter, who resents our heroine.
You’re worried that you’ll end up with a very grim story, so you bring in a humorous subplot. Your heroine’s sidekick dates prolifically, and all her dates are horror stories. In your subplot, the sidekick meets a man who wants more than one date, and she finally falls in love.
If you’re a pantser you won’t have a plot before you start writing; your subplot will emerge naturally as you write.
2. Resolve Your Subplot Before Your Novel’s Climax.
Subplots can be challenging – sometimes your subplot threatens to take over your plot. Rein it in. Just as with your primary plot, a subplot has a setup, rising action, a climax, and a swift ending. Make sure you end your subplot well before before the main plot.
Sometimes, especially in a romance novel, a subplot will end after the main story wraps up, as part of an epilogue. However you manage it, end your subplot satisfactorily – don’t leave any loose ends.
3. Use Your Subplot to Build Tension – OR Relieve It.
Subplots are a wonderful way to build tension in your novels. Some authors end each chapter on a cliffhanger. Read bestselling author Sandra Brown: she uses cliffhanger endings brilliantly. You can do something similar. End a chapter with a cliffhanger, then start the next chapter with a scene from your subplot, before you return to the main plot.
You can also use subplots to relieve tension after highly emotional scenes, to give readers a little time to absorb what’s happened in the primary plot.
Subplots are fun for readers, and for writers. Watch how your favorite authors weave subplots into their novels. Then experiment with your own subplot in your current novel. Have fun. 🙂
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