Difference Between Plot and Subplot

On the Writing Fiction Right blog, I often receive questions within the comments from writers, and sometimes I receive emails from newer authors asking questions. This question—What is the difference between a plot and a subplot—came to me a short time ago, and though I responded to the questioner, I decided others might enjoy an explanation.

Plot is the full flow of your story—what happens from the beginning to the end. The plot provides the main characters, their goals and motivation and their conflicts—the obstacles that keep them from reaching their goal. The plot is where you’ll find the story’s theme or main idea.

Sub-plot is a secondary plot (or side story) that is unfolding in your story. The subplot adds complications and puts obstacles in the way of the main character and therefore becomes a story conflict. Sometimes a subplot will mirror the struggle of a main character, and though the character has wisdom for her friend’s issue, she can’t relate it to her own until something happens to help her see that she has the same problem and now has the answer.

Below are some examples:
Family saga – Plot deals with a mother-daughter relationship and the struggles they have to resolve their problems. Sub-plot would be the daughter’s husband’s business is going under adding stress to her life and their relationship.

Romance – Plot deals with hero and heroine falling in love as they meet conflicts and issues that keep them from admitting the love they feel or that keep them from accepting the love that’s within reach. The sub-plot might be the heroine’s former fiancé shows up in her life again trying to rekindle their old relationship.

Suspense – Plot deal with a detective who is struggling to solve a crime that keeps alluding him. The bad guy is getting more dangerous and pressure is on the detective. Subplot – The detective’s wife is tired of his long hours and dangerous job. She wants out of the marriage.

As you can see, a subplot is another significant situation in the story that causes conflict, creating deeper tension and thus emotion while the main character tries to resolve these personal issues while striving to reach the goal that’s important to them.

Subplots helps a book’s pacing by adding deeper conflicts, but too many subplots can complicate a story unless the book is the length that can handle them. Shorter novels of from 50,000 to 65,000 word count can handle one subplot well. Stories of 80,000 word count is open to perhaps two subplots. So judge wisely. When a novel is too burdened with subplots, the reader can lose the original story. Use wisdom and select the most powerful subplots that will make a difference to the characters and that is affects the original goal of a main character.


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