Why Subplot Matters

Recently, I listened to two romance novels by the same author but from different series. One fell flat (partially because of the male narrator’s “female” voice sounded like Fran Drescher’s best whine). The other was better not just for the narrator but because the plot had depth…it had a subplot.

What is Subplot?

Subplot is the plot that runs throughout a novel alongside the main plot. In other words, it’s the “what happens” that helps to hold the reader’s interest. Good subplot links back to the primary plot…ideally in an explosive and pivotal way when both plots simultaneously climax (preferably not in Fran Drescher’s voice). Liane Moriarty is a genius in this regard. If you haven’t read or seen Big Little Lies by now, then I’m about to spoil the ending for you, so either cover your eyes and skip to the next section or read on.

In LBM, Lianne expertly weaves the narratives of Jane, Madeline, and Celeste together so that when the mysterious death transpires at the school’s trivia night, we have simultaneous climactic moments for every major character. Madeline and Renata make up in the wake of Renata’s husband’s infidelity. On the balcony, Jane realizes and reveals that Celeste’s husband Perry is her rapist and father’s child. Perry and Celeste’s abusive relationship is made public when Bonnie, Madeline’s ex-husband’s wife snaps and calls him out on it. Everything in each character’s plotline is woven increasingly close together leading up to this incredible scene where everything makes sense. Oh, and it’s Perry who dies. Bonnie pushed him. I did promise plot spoilers, didn’t I?

So, Here’s Why Subplot Matters

Subplot is the thing that could make the difference between your reader’s mind picking up its bags and walking away or sticking to your story. Subplot is the kind of thing that should enhance your actual plot. Ideally, you’ll have more than one working in your story at any given time. Readers of all kinds of genres crave complexity. Our lives are complex. Our stories are complex. We want complex characters, too…even in genre fiction, which is (and should be) relatively predictable in terms of structure. In other words, if you’re writing romance, write that true love conquers all…it’s what the audience wants, but don’t assume that the audience wants the quest to be simple or so straightforward that it only involves two people with an angsty reason not to love and an angsty reason to want to get it on with the other person. The more obstacles in the way of a character and his or her goal(s), the more glorious the payoff.

Think of Subplot as Plot

But, Mom, I don’t want to distract from the main plot! I get that. A good strategy is to think of your work as having multiple plots. Liane Moriarty (ugh, her again, I know!) does this so well that it’s hard to shake out the primary plot for the strength of the other ones. Take Three Wishes for example. You have triplets Gemma, Lyn, and Cat. Each of them has a story that directly impacts the others’ stories, and each are equally strong. Because Cat gets the harshest script treatment and because her sisters’ lives directly impact her story in a way that they don’t one another, Cat’s is the main plotline because it’s Cat’s story that pushes events into motion around her.

Despite that, each of the sister’s stories stand on its own in that it has a clear beginning, middle, and end. The stories intertwine at just the right moment to have maximum impact on the main plot (Cat’s story). In Three Wishes, the inciting event is when Cat’s husband Dan reveals he’s slept with another woman named Angela. Gemma starts dating a new guy named Charlie. Later, it’s innocuously slipped in that Charlie has a sister who is dating a married man. Gemma brings her new boyfriend to Christmas lunch to meet the family. Because her car is broken, he happens to have his little sister with him. His little sister…Angela.

Because Dan’s paramour is her triplet’s boyfriend’s sister, the sting of the infidelity is so much harsher than if she’d just been some random beautiful girl. The subplot adds to Cat’s feeling that the walls are caving in as the revelation of relationships made at just the right time sucks all of the air out of the room. The subplot, which is a plot in and of itself, took the main plot to the next level, and this can be achieved in any story.

How to Come Up with Your Subplot(s)

My recommendation is to figure out the scenes that are driving you to write the story in the first place.

  • Identify the moment when everything comes to a head. Who’s there? How have they impacted one another?
  • Then, start working backward from that moment.
  • Make sure it’s personal not just for your main character but for all of them.

Develop rich backstories, too. Even if those components don’t make it into the main plot, you know they’re there. Sometimes, they do, though. In Three Wishes, Cat’s suffering is made worse-yet-still when it’s revealed that her asshat of a husband slept with one of her sisters (sensible Lyn, not capricious Gemma) when they all first met—before Cat and Dan got together. Cat’s sense of betrayal is compounded because not only did the thing happen, but her husband never told her. Even more stinging, her sister never told her.

And that is why subplot matters. End scene.

Sometimes all it takes to figure out a good subplot is solid planning or a second set of well-trained eyes. Whether you’re just getting started or have a manuscript you’re ready to get feedback on, feel free to contact me, Vonnie York (vonnie@creativeeditingservices.com) or by clicking here. I offer a wide variety of services from coaching to ghostwriting to copyediting.