Know your writing terms: Subplot

James is a pitiful man, the drunken, loud-mouthed bum who everyone tries to ignore.

I didn’t know much about James until the day he decided to show me a secret part of his life.

James is one of the characters in the novel I’m writing.

That secret of his has me writing a second story that ties into the main story in a unique and important way.

In literary terms, that additional story is called a subplot.

What are subplots?

Simply put, subplots are stories within the main story — mini plots. But they aren’t simple stories that you throw in to take a break from your main plot.

A good subplot is one that supports what you have written. It’s structured just like any story — with a beginning, middle, and end — and its main jobs are to enhance what the protagonist is learning and to help drive the action and theme.

All subplots must connect and relate to the main story. Anything besides that is just filler, a dangerous ingredient that will cause your story to dry up. It’ll also give your reader a good reason to close your book.

Why have subplots?

Subplots will provide layers that permeate the main story, so much so that the story comes alive. They can:

  • prove your protagonist’s life
  • weave into the situation
  • take the pressure off the story
  • add complexity
  • reveal growth and change
  • flesh out the story
  • provide context
  • add to tension/suspense
  • deepen characters
  • drive the story

(Source: “Developing Subplots,” Writer’s Digest Magazine, March/April 2013.

A Famous Novel’s Subplots

To Kill A Mockingbird is my favorite novel, so it immediately came to mind as the perfect example of successful subplots.

The main story is surrounded and supported by several subplots, all of which come together at the end in a satisfying and unforgettable way. Take a look at three of them:

  1. Main Plot: Atticus Finch, a widow and the father of young Scout and Jem, agrees to defend Tom Robinson, a black man who is on trial for raping a white woman. The setting is 1930’s Alabama in a town simmering with prejudice and racial tension.
  2. Subplot #1: The children have a neighbor who has a mysterious past. They name him “Boo” Radley and are both intrigued and scared by him, though they’ve never seen him. It is their goal to conquer their fears and see Boo face to face. Throughout the novel we see that Boo is trying to become their friend. He ends up saving their lives.
  3. Subplot #2: The Ewell family lives in deep poverty, and Bob Ewell despises Atticus for agreeing to defend Tom. The woman who claims she was raped by Tom is Bob Ewell’s daughter.  Tom is found guilty, even though evidence shows he is not, and Bob devotes his life to troubling Atticus and his family.
  4. Subplot #3. Scout feels she must defend her father after the town questions his defense of a black man. She fights with schoolmates when they call her father ugly names. Both she and her brother see Atticus as weak and uninteresting, but she is given many opportunities to witness his strong character, which eventually changes her mind about him.

These subplots are intriguing enough on their own, and the author’s use of them to tell her larger story is masterful. The novel ends beautifully after being supported so well by these subplots.

Note that not all stories have subplots; short stories and novellas usually don’t have them due to the limits of their length. You may also find novels that don’t have a subplot. Just the richness in characters, their points-of-view, and the main plot is enough to drive a story without the support of separate story lines.

But if you want to go deeper to add complications, connect characters, and enlarge the story’s world, then use a subplot to provide these story-enriching elements.

Start weaving!

[This post is part of my Know Your Writing Terms series. Visit my Writing Terms page for links to all the posts.]


5 thoughts on “Know your writing terms: Subplot

  1. Don’t you just hate how those pesky secondary characters develop compelling stories and personalities? ;=)
    Great post, Darla. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is one of my favorites, too, and you used the sub-plots as perfect examples of what to do.


  2. Before I started writing humor, I wrote a romantic suspense just to figure out how to go about writing a whole book. I don’t know if I’ll ever even try to clean it up to attempt to publish it, but I figured out pretty quickly that if I didn’t add subplots, the main “suspense” would have been very easy to figure out!


    1. That’s a great point to add to the list: Subplots keep the suspense going! I hope one day you’ll find time to get back to your book, Cindy. I can imagine your humor sprinkled throughout the story!


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