A Word About Sub-Plots

A Word About Sub-PlotsLast week, I read Book No. 8 in a series by a very talented and hugely popular author.

Let me say right upfront that usually, I really enjoy this author’s work. She has created a memorable story world for her series, and a vivid, entertaining cast of characters. But this book really disappointed me.

There were several reasons, but the main gripe I had was a distracting sub-plot that kept interrupting the narrative drive to tell me stuff about two characters that I didn’t much like and didn’t care about. Worse, I had NO IDEA why they were in the book until right near the end.

By then, did I care? NO!!!! The content of the sub-plot could have been easily integrated into other parts of the narrative, without interfering with the flow of the story.

In this book, the author had two distinct sub-plots: the one mentioned above, and another that added depth to the main story and also developed characters we’d met in earlier books.

It felt relevant.

Some Thoughts About Sub-Plots

What exactly is a sub-plot? This is probably where writers agree to disagree. What is the difference, exactly, between a sub-plot and a twist or development of the main plot? The easiest way to decide is probably to ask yourself: “If I pulled the sub-plot out, could the story still stand alone?” If you answer ‘yes’, then you have a sub-plot. If you answer ‘no’, then you probably have a development of the main plot. To develop this further: if any action in the sub-plot changes the outcome of the story significantly, then it is actually part of the fabric of the main plot.

A sub-plot can have some impact on the main plot (for example by distracting the main character, or making him/her less effective) but generally doesn’t change the outcome.

BUT – to be honest, it doesn’t matter what you call it: as long as your sub-plot or story twist adds value to the plot and helps to keep the story moving, then it works.

What is the role of a sub-plot?

  • To add depth to a primary character
  • To add depth to the story
  • To act as a relief from the ongoing tension of the main plot
  • To keep the story moving when there is a lull in the action of the main plot
  • To make things more difficult for the main character (i.e. to distract him/her from the job at hand)

DOs and DON’Ts of Sub-Plots


  • let your sub-plot overpower the main plot
  • let your sub-plot to spoil the pacing of your main story by interrupting the flow
  • let your story drag on too long because the sub-plot needs space (if the book is too long, cut the sub-plot)


  • use a sub-plot to help build suspense by making the reader wait to see what will happen (BUT make sure the sub-plot is interesting enough for the reader to want to know what happens there, too)
  • use a sub-plot to put more problems in the way of other characters
  • use a sub-plot to illuminate what motivates the characters
  • Do you need a sub-plot? No. Short stories, novelettes and novellas don’t usually have them; they’re too short.

Should you have a sub-plot? Don’t insert one for the sake of having one. You might find that twists and turns of the main plot are enough.


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