SUBPLOTS: The Why, What, and How Part I

Real life is made up of a variety of responsibilities, issues, and conflicts that challenge people’s lives. The same holds true for your fictitious characters. A character has a major goal he wants to reach by the end of the book and his energy is focused there, but he is held back by obstacles. Life goes on beyond his desire to reach his goal—situations with family, friends, employment, social commitments, church life, and romantic entanglements. These issues drain the character’s time as he proceeds toward his goal.

While some issues are mundane and not fodder for dynamic conflicts, others are. These issues can provide excellent ways to impact your characters and the plot of your novel.

While the plot could be called Plot A, a subplot is plot B. It is directly related to the main plot but it is not as important. Still it does make a difference by complicating and strengthening conflicts in a character life. The subplot can be connected to the internal struggle of the character or an external force outside the character that affects him.

To explain the difference, let me provide a setup:
A man is striving to be a success in his career, and when he’s offered a higher position in the company, he learns he will have to move to a new area which appeals to him.

Internal subplot without additional characters:
His marriage is already stressed. He and his wife are drifting apart. His wife works and the move would affect her employment? The job could mean more time away from his family. In his new position, the wife will need to play the role of hostess and supporter of his career.

External subplot – an additional plots that adds new characters:
When the man is offered a higher position, he realizes he will work with a woman who is attracted to him and he to her. Can he handle this additional stress and still keep his marriage intact?

Issues will be part of the character’s life that are built into his character, personality and/or past. These issues are not necessarily subplots but part of his makeup. This refers to fears, low self-esteem, character flaws, past experiences that cause the sense of failure, and other elements found in backstory. A subplot is a new kind of stress that comes from the internal makeup of the individual. In the case above, a marriage in stress is an added plot that affects the main plot, success in his career.

Purpose of Subplot:
Subplots should provide a purposeful presence in any novel. Adding conflicts with granny moving into the family home is not a subplot unless it has a major impact on the goals and needs of the main characters. If granny is a welcome diversion to the family, I would not add it to the story, especially if not’s not a lengthy novel. So what can a subplot do for your novel?

1. Make the story more real.
This refers to my statement above. Real life isn’t smooth. Characters have distractions that cause them problems and takes time away from reaching their goal or obtaining their need.

2. Add greater conflict and tension.
Any element that promotes new or stronger conflict or tension in a novel is excellent. A novel is built on growing conflicts. Adding a subplot helps avoid the sagging middle of a book.

3. Add interest by giving variety to the story —keeping this unpredictable.
Anything we add to our story that surprises the reader becomes a hook. It keeps pages turning and asking what will happen next.

4. Add texture by adding story layers — see the characters interacting with new characters and in different situations.
When new characters enter a story, they bring out character nuances. Readers see the character outside the realm of the familiar characters in the story. It shows the “real” character as he reacts and responds to a nemesis from the past or a friend who remembers him “when” and brings a new concern into his life. In a suspense novel, we follow the detective but don’t see his family issues. Adding them adds another texture. We can also experience the personal side of a villain when he’s at home with his family. We see that he can love his wife and children and still murders people. We might even understand why he’s the way he is when we view him differently. Not that it makes him a good guy, but he can create a kind of pity for his evilness.

5. Deepening characterization.
When we bring new and different emotions from our characters, we deepen them. When a past issues resurfaces and puts the character ins jeopardy in some way, we will see the character attack the problem with the survival of the fittest attitude, perhaps a side of him we’ve never seen in his daily life. A character might reveal a side of himself the reader never knew or show a weakness the reader has never seen before. Just as I said with the villain. We see a side of him we might not see if he didn’t have to leave the crime scenes. When he does, we witness him as a person with a family. This also happens with a subplot affecting a main character in our novels.

6. Generating suspense elements.
Suspense is possible in a novel that’s not a real suspense. When things happen that arouse questions and the happening has not explanation it adds suspense. Everyone likes suspense — or most people do — and it truly captures readers and involves them. The suspense doesn’t have to be as developed as a real suspense novel. Perhaps something is missing and it creates questions — a piece of jewelry and a photograph — anything, that causes the characters to wonder why and where.

More on subplots next week.


Leave a comment
  1. Avily Jerome November 24, 2008 at 8:21 pm #

    Great info and explanations and examples.
    Thanks Gail!

  2. Gail Gaymer Martin November 24, 2008 at 10:03 pm #

    Avily – Thanks so much. I appreciate your letting me know you’re enjoying the blogs.

    Happy Thanksgiving and blessings,

  3. LaJoyce Shrom December 1, 2008 at 9:54 am #

    I really enjoy your blogs.Packed full of good information.

  4. Teri Smith December 1, 2008 at 10:11 am #

    Thanks for these tips. I’ve clicked on a lot of your other posts too and found them helpful. Nice to meet you at the ACFW conference.

  5. Gail Gaymer Martin December 1, 2008 at 11:47 am #

    LaJoyce and Teri – Thanks so much for letting me know you find these blog entries helpful. They are work but if they’re serving a good purpose, it’s worthwhile.

    Many blessings for a wonderful Christmas.


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