How to Use Sub-plots
If your book is suffering from the dreaded 'sagging middle' syndrome, it's likely
that you either don't have a subplot or you haven't paid enough attention to your subplots. (In
shorter books, such as those for juvenile readers, you can usually 'pep up' the middle by adding
another challenge for the main character. Long fiction needs more.)
Some writers really wrestle with subplots. Either they're not entirely sure what a subplot
IS, or they can't think of one that will blend well with the main story. The following tips will
help you understand the role of a subplot, and learn how to create one that will work well with
What Is A Subplot?
To understand what a subplot is, you need look no further than your own life. Of course, real
life isn't usually as focused as a novel (just as dialogue in a book is usually much 'tighter' than
real-life conversation) but it will serve as a guide.
Here's an example: let's suppose that your immediate concern is to get out of debt. What's more,
you need money quickly. How can you get it? Let's start turning this into
You're a single parent. You need money. Your creditors are pressuring you. You're renting, so
you can't sell your house to tap into the equity. You wouldn't dream of stealing or breaking the
law... so how can you get money quickly? (And after that, how can you get out of debt
These three are very simple subplots, but any one (or all three) could be developed to provide
extra conflict and to deepen the main story. When you start brainstorming subplots, look for ideas
that will do these things:
- Someone in the office is laying the blame for a serious breach of confidence on your best
friend, who works for the same company. Your boss is a hair's breadth away from firing her, and
is constantly in a bad mood. Your friend is trying to deal with the fallout - but is also
trying not to involve you, because you have enough problems. Eventually you become implicated
too, because of your friendship.
- Your 13 year old is lying to you and hanging out with friends you don't approve of. She's
in trouble at school. You know your boss has a 'thing' about working mothers needing more time
off than other workers... you don't know how to ask for time off work to attend a meeting
requested by the Principal. You dare not risk losing your job, given your existing money
- You've been to the doctor because of some worrying symptoms, and you've been asked to go in
for further tests. Sigh. Everything is money, money, money...
- generate suspense when there's a lull in the main story
- serve to make things worse in the main story
- offer ways to deepen character or illuminate a theme
Do NOT choose a subplot that has nothing to do with the rest of the story. (That is, if your
main story is about someone who is trying to find a way out of debt, don't create a subplot about a
secondary character's efforts to audition for a talent show. Not unless that secondary character is
the Lead's daughter or sister and needs MONEY to get to the audition!)
When Should a Subplot Start?
A subplot, if it is mainly about the lead character, should start as early as possible in the
story. (If you're running more than one subplot, then you can start others a bit later on.) For
example, if we take the third subplot mentioned above (the main character being asked to return for
further medical tests) then that can be introduced very close to the beginning of the story. We
will be immediately able to identify with her fears. If the subplot mainly involves someone other
than the main character (such as the first example above), it's important to give the reader time
to get to know the main character before you start the subplot rolling. A rule of thumb: introduce
the main character first. Let the reader become 'comfortable' in that person's skin, then introduce
other characters and their problems.
How Do You Switch Back and Forth from Plot to Subplot?
Don't alternate the plot and subplot - that can seem contrived. Rather, weave them together. In
the example given above, the main character can be about to leave for a meeting with the realtor
about unpaid rent when the phone rings. Her daughter wants to stay at a friend's place that night,
but she's already grounded. The conversation can show the conflict between parent and child. The
next day your lead character can arrive at work, worried because she has a deadline of two weeks to
get the rent up to date before things will start getting nasty... only to find that her friend
Marcie is rushing out of the boss's office in tears. All indications are that Marcie is responsible
for a security leak, but our main character knows that can't be true.
Meanwhile, the pressure mounts... And so it goes on... just weave the strands of your story
together. Occasionally, leave the main character and tell the story from another character's
viewpoint - the wayward daughter, or the friend who is being set up to take the blame for the
security leak. Naturally the increased stress will make things harder all round for your main
character. For example:
She can hear about a great part-time job that will allow her more time with her troubled
daughter... but realises she would never be able to survive on the drop in income. She finds
out that her medical condition requires prompt attention to prevent later problems, but she
doesn't have enough paid sick leave to take the required time off work. Her boss, knowing she
is just surviving from day to day, is all too ready to believe that she's in partnership with
her friend selling company secrets.
Subplots will add life and interest to your story, and ensure that there is no let-up in the
kind of conflict and tension that keeps readers turning pages. Just take a long look at your
character's life - and pick a subplot!