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Weaving the plot: image shows two spools of thread. A subplot is a secondary plotline sometimes featuring a secondary character.
editing your novel
novel writing techniques

Weaving the Plot: How to Write a Brilliant Subplot

L.R. Lam. Author and The Novelry Team Member
L.R. Lam
June 16, 2024
June 16, 2024

If you’re writing a novel, you probably have a good handle on its central narrative arc, but you might’ve realized that to really make your book sing you need to create subplots.

Or perhaps you’ve discovered you have too many subplots, and now you’re wondering if they’re all required. Balancing, identifying and executing multiple subplots can be a real challenge!

In this article, The Novelry writing coach and Sunday Times bestselling author L.R. Lam provides definitions of subplots, as well as tips and techniques to make sure your main plotline and subplots are working in tandem.

What is a subplot?

Let’s start with a definition.

A subplot is a storyline in your novel that is secondary to your main plot. This secondary storyline—or storylines—often run parallel to the main plot and tend to converge toward the climax.

Or, if you’re writing a series, your subplot might be the plots that run parallel across multiple installments as you gradually tease out the backstory or build toward a big reveal in a future volume.

a subplot is a secondary plotline sometimes featuring a secondary character

Why bother with subplots?

Wouldn’t it be simpler to write the central plot and that’s it? Why over-complicate?

A good subplot can:

  • deepen characterization
  • make the plot more satisfying or complex
  • add nuance
  • genre-blend or place a story within a certain sub-genre
  • set up great twists for your main plot
  • tie in foreshadowing for other future events
  • activate your themes
  • enhance world-building, and so much more.

Subplots are an excellent craft tool to have in your arsenal and can often be used to plug larger plot holes, too. Many craft books for writers, like Save the Cat!, mention things like the A story, the B story, or the C story. B and C are your parallel subplots or secondary subplots, but they must come back and serve the A plot.

your subplot creates smaller scale conflict mirrors

How many subplots?

Sometimes during coaching sessions, people ask this question, and I, of course, give them the answer they probably don’t want: as many as the story requires.

There is no magic number.

Some stories may require very few, and others might require the careful choreography of many subplots, particularly if it’s a story that has multiple volumes, multiple points of view, or spans various timelines.

Types of subplots

There are many types of subplots authors commonly use. Here are a few:

Romantic subplot

A romance subplot is common in many genres: crime, fantasy, contemporary, literary, and more. Maybe you aren’t writing a Capital-R romance novel, but you have a love interest and they slowly fall in love as they solve the main plot of the novel. Voilà: a subplot.

You can consider mapping romance plot beats onto your story to see how they might run alongside your main plot. I’ve used Gwen Hayes’s Romancing the Beat. This will also help character development by providing internal and interpersonal obstacles alongside the external elements of the main story.

If you’re genre-blending, you might also sidestep the Happily Ever After requirement that category romance has baked into the genre. Is this a romantic tragedy or a love story where the happy ending isn’t guaranteed?

Character-specific subplots

Perhaps your protagonist falls in with an unlikely group of rogues and they must work together to solve a specific problem (your main plot). As the story progresses, the hero gradually learns more about these other characters and the secrets they keep. These would be examples of character-led subplots, and some of those reveals will feed into the primary storyline.

Going back to a much older story that predates the novel as we know it now, The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer is pretty much all self-contained character-led subplots: the overarching plot of people on a pilgrimage is very thin deliberately and serves more as a vehicle for each character to share their story.

A non-linear subplot

It’s quite common to have flashbacks in books to help develop backstory, but often these will still have their own self-contained beginning, middle, and end points. Going back to the example of rogues solving a problem up above, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo makes excellent use of well-timed flashbacks to drip out backstories. Kaz Brekker, for example, the morally gray leader of the gang, always wears gloves and struggles to physically touch others (which impedes, in turn, the romantic subplot). Through the flashbacks following him and his brother as children, you find out why—and the eventual reveal is heartbreaking. Other books might deliberately span several generations: Weyward by Emilia Hart, a recent successful witchy release, shows three women living in different time periods, and their individual stories weave together one cohesive, spellbinding story.

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A subplot to up the stakes and suspense (e.g. a ticking clock)

Often, the threads you’ve identified will create a complicated subplot. To give a more personal example, subplots were a particular challenge for me for the initial draft of Emberclaw, the sequel to my epic fantasy romance Dragonfall, which came out last year. Subplots in the second books of trilogies can be especially tricky: you might be finishing subplots that were teased in the first volume, have subplots that are self-contained in the second book, and be setting up subplots that feed-forward to the final installment. I felt like I was drowning in subplots!

One of my problems was that I had dangled a tasty little problem at the end of book one—a character stealing something very important from my protagonist—but my editor quite rightly pointed out that I didn’t follow up on that promise at all in the sequel. The character was missing entirely, and the thing that was stolen was never mentioned or caused problems for my protagonist.

Initially, I was worried that I would have to add a whole new subplot to solve this, which would complicate things further. After a bit of strategizing, I realized that the answer was obvious: I simply needed to have this character blackmail my protagonist. This allowed me to deepen several other subplots while making sure this secondary character had a presence in the sequel. It also upped the stakes: if my protagonist is caught snooping around to get what the character wants, they will be in narrative trouble. If my character doesn’t find what’s required and the blackmail threat is carried out, my protagonist will also be in narrative trouble. This is more satisfying for the reader because they’ll be reading on to find out how my protagonist does or doesn’t get out of this pickle.

I’d already subconsciously set all the breadcrumbs and this fix was quite easy to implement. So take a look at the subplots you feel aren’t pulling their weight yet: is there a way to combine or punch them up? Can they throw up more problems for your characters?

A mirror subplot

A mirror subplot is another term for a parallel subplot, essentially. This sub-storyline might have a conflict that mirrors the primary problem but is different in other ways. I find this can be useful for antagonist arcs: maybe your hero and villain face similar obstacles but react very differently and function as foils to each other. One might triumph over the conflict, and the other might be destroyed by the same challenge. How narratively satisfying.

A frame subplot

Lastly, perhaps you have a frame at the beginning or end that tells another story or sets up how the main story has reached the reader. Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice has the frame of the actual interview, for example. To function as more than just bookends, this should function as a subplot, too. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley has an interrupted frame throughout the story, which functions closer to a non-linear subplot.

Tips for balancing subplots

I’ll close with some quick practical tips to keep in mind:

1. Map out your subplots

What’s the beginning, middle, and end of each one?

2. Color code

I keep a list of my subplots and I assign them a color. When I’m editing, I’ll check which scenes are touching on which subplots and make sure they’re appearing as often as I need them to (often, your scenes will be progressing several at once). If one disappears for most of the book, I sometimes make sure to weave it into those missing areas, if required, or I recognize it’s a subplot that wraps up at, say, the midway point instead of the end.

3. Be honest

Is it a subplot or a tangent? If a subplot could be completely deleted without losing anything to the main plot... That’s usually a sign that it either needs to be better embedded into the story or taken out entirely. Maybe it can be saved for another book!

4. Streamline

If you worry you have too many subplots, see if there’s a way to combine, simplify, or streamline. Can your romance subplot also add more complications, for example?

Now that you know what types of subplots are most common, why they might be useful, and how to identify or use them for your own story, I hope that helps you feel more confident in weaving them into your own story.

For more insights into literary techniques, coaching and a supportive writing community, join us on a creative writing course at The Novelry—the world’s top-rated writing school.

Someone writing in a notebook
L.R. Lam. Author and The Novelry Team Member
L.R. Lam

El, or L.R. Lam, is the Sunday Times bestselling, award-winning author of nine novels, with three more under contract. Their books include the epic fantasy romance Dragonfall, the beginning of the Dragon Scales trilogy, cyberpunk near-future thrillers, space opera novels, and a near-future thriller. 

Members of The Novelry team