How to add in SUBPLOTS

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Subplots! They add depth, layers, and more complexity to the overall "main plot" or give more depth/insight into a character.

The key thing about subplots is that they are NOT filler. If you can remove this subplot and the story wouldn't change whatsoever, then it's filler, and it probably should be cut. Subplots ADD something meaningful to the main plot or a character in some way. They should still push the main plot forward, not bring it to a standstill.

In New Moon, Jacob's subplot with that redhaired girl was so irrelevant to anything. It could've been cut from the novel and nothing would have changed. It didn't advance the plot, so it was a poor choice for a subplot.

Harry Potter *might* have one too with Hermione's advocacy for house elves. The fact that the movies were able to cut it out entirely might be a red flag that this subplot was more filler than an advancement of the main plot (disclaimer: it's been years since I read that book, so maybe it was important. From what I remember, it was a big tangent to the main plot). While it impacted Hermione and developed her character arc, (as far as I remember) it didn't impact Harry, the protagonist, which was why it felt weak to me.

So an effective subplot usually needs to be related to a main plot/character and advance that plot/character arc.

Before I delve into how to create subplots, let's put together a definition. A sub (below/under/smaller) plot (conflict, goal, action, resolution). A subplot should be just as developed as a main plot, but just shorter or smaller. Not weaker.

A character involved in a subplot still needs to have a goal for that subplot, some kind of conflict or obstacles standing in his way, and a resolution (good or bad). So you still need full plot development in a subplot, just in a smaller scale. A lot of times, subplots act as obstacles in the way of the main plot, and that is a great way to justify the inclusion of that subplot, a way to prove it isn't just filler.

So how do you come up with subplots?

You... DON'T! *audience gasps*

When you have a story, you usually have a main plot in your head first. Develop that main plot fully, and you'll find subplots naturally grow out from it like branches of a tree. If you try forcing subplots in after the fact, they'll look forced, contrived, and they'll probably seem disjointed from the main plot. You don't want to go off on too far a tangent with your subplots. There should still be some kind of link back to the main plot, otherwise you'll have your work cut out for you trying to justify including that subplot. So just build off your main plot.

A subplot can be:

1. an obstacle in the way of solving the main plot. Maybe the character is dealing with some big war or something, but there are family issues at home that distract him during crucial turning points in the war plot.

2. a way to drive the main plot forward. During the subplot, the character can learn a key piece of knowledge or some skill or some growth of character that helps them with the main problem. In dealing with those family problems, the character was able to apply those same lessons to the war conflict and win.


When you have your main storyline, you're going to be building on facets of that idea. Let me give an example with my novel, Guardian Redemption.

The main plot: Cleon and Kairi find out Cleon has this violent, enraged god sealed inside him, and the seal keeps breaking. The god is trying to take control of Cleon's body and go on a violent rampage, which is a bit of a problem.

So how do we get subplots out of this? Well, Kairi's a powerful mage, but she doesn't know any spells strong enough to extract that god without killing Cleon in the process, so she needs to obtain the knowledge and skills to do so. There's the goal of a subplot already!

So what's the conflict related to that? It's HOW she's going to learn stronger spells. She already knows all the legal magics, so time to delve into illegal ones. There are a bunch of criminal mages using illegal dark magic living in the underground city, so she needs to learn from them. But to get them to teach her is a problem (an OBSTACLE! *hinthint*). So Kairi goes off to do her own thing, starting a business where she morphs a mage's face and gives him a new identity if he teaches her illegal magics.

Then keep branching off this with more obstacles, more goals: she needs to set up business and get clients, so she'll strike a deal with the slum king who oversees the underground city.

This is still advancing the main plot because this is how Kairi's going to *try* to get that god out of Cleon. But she ends up battling her own inner demons when she gets obsessed and out of control with her new powers.

So while she's going off on her subplot, Cleon's part of his own subplot where his friend goes missing, and he has to search for her. But the people who abducted his friend are involved with someone who's indirectly involved with the person who put that god inside Cleon. So while it's a tangent, it still connects back to the main plot.

We have a goal: find his friend. We have conflict/obstacles: the people who abducted her are powerful mages while Cleon can't use magic. We have a resolution: He finds out who abducted his friend and follows them on a subsequent abduction, which leads him back to the plot revolving around the god inside him.

Cleon's BFF is this healer, Joren. Joren's subplot involves a plague outbreak in the underground city where Cleon and Kairi are now hanging around a lot because of their subplots. When Cleon and Kairi catch this incurable plague, Joren freaks out trying to find a cure before his friends die.

Goal: find a cure. Conflict/obstacles: the sickness kills its victims within a day or two, and no amount of experimentation has reaped results. Joren's going against his morals and conducting brutal experimentation on the dying, which pushes forward his character arc. Resolution: the cure comes from a god, which is, you guessed it, related to the one in Cleon.

This leads to yet another subplot where Kairi's BFF goes down into the underground city to find a cure, and he ends up getting abducted by the people who took Cleon's friend (a link back to Cleon's subplot). Goal: find the cure. Obstacles: the underground city is a really sketch place where all the criminals and lowlives hide out, and this guy has no idea how to go around inconspicuously. Resolution: he gets abducted, and the reason for his abduction is actually directly related to the god thing again. So it's coming full circle.

Create natural links for your subplots back with the main plot and even with each other. That'll strengthen their role in the story and make them less likely to feel like filler or too far of a tangent. 

So these subplots are all advancing (or hindering, as an obstacle) that main plot AND advancing character arcs. That's your goal with subplots: advance both plot and character. It doesn't have to do both, but it's definitely a powerful statement if you can pull it off.

Romance is a frequent subplot in many novels. Relationships between two characters can provide a lot of internal conflict as well as hinder/advance the main plot. Because the character loves this person, and if something bad happens to the love interest, the character will be more motivated to help them. Maybe the character will have to choose between helping the one they love and resolving the main plot.

In one of the Matrix movies, Neo is faced with a choice: save his lover Trinity or save the rest of the human race. If he goes to save everyone else, Trinity will die, and vice versa.

There are so many avenues with subplots that there really aren't any rules to them other than don't make them filler and make sure they're fully developed plot arcs. They should advance the main plot, create more obstacles for the main goal, and/or develop someone's character arc.

Subplots add layers to the story, but make sure they're adding layers to the main story and not some random irrelevant tangential story (New Moon).

Create your main storyline first and branch off your subplots from that, and loop them back so they reconnect to the main plot.

I read somewhere that a subplot needs to be a complication to the protagonist. A good subplot complicates their lives--and bringing this back to my point, it complicated their lives so they have to work harder toward achieving the goal for the main plot.

Or a subplot will make a seemingly impossible task easier to tackle. A subplot should make them struggle during that subplot's events, no argument there, but the resolution can either add another obstacle to the main goal, or it can provide the tools and resources the protagonist needs to tackle the main goal more confidently.


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