ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel
  • »
  • Books, Literature, and Writing»
  • How to Write

The Importance Of Subplots When Writing A Novel

Updated on January 6, 2014

What Are Subplots?

So there we were, Bev and I doing our Christmas thing, trying to squeeze in some last minute shopping and preparing the big meal. On the periphery were several of our kids; one still stinging from a love lost; one rejoicing from a new love found; one frantic because she didn’t know what to buy everyone for presents.

If I had written a story about these holidays just ended, the main story would have been about a “normal family” preparing for Christmas. The subplots would have followed our children as they dealt with their angst, and how that angst affected the rest of the family during the holidays.

I guess the best way to define a subplot is to say it is a miniature story within the main story. Subplots have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and they are used to give depth to your novel.

They can be used in contrast; they can be used in reinforcement; and yes, they can be used as a diversion from the main plot. What they should never be used as is a means to simply lengthen the novel.

Good writers can weave subplots into their books so that you barely notice they are there. Subplots should never steal center stage from the primary story but rather they should enhance it. This is an important point to understand and one we’ll talk more about later. For now, though, let’s take a look at some of the reasons why you should use subplots.

Just as there are layers of texture in nature, a finely-written  novel will also has textures because of subplots.
Just as there are layers of texture in nature, a finely-written novel will also has textures because of subplots. | Source

Yes You Should Use Subplots in a Novel

The key word in that subheading is “novel.” Using subplots in a short story is a difficult undertaking. When you are limited to 5,000 words or so, it is practically impossible to do justice to anything but the main story. So what follows are reasons why you should use subplots in a novel.

  • Subplots are a way to show the complications and depth in your character’s life.
  • Subplots allow you to take a bit of the pressure off of the main story so it is not overly depressing or gloomy.
  • Subplots give complexity to your story, adding more problems, adding more choices and adding more decisions to be made.
  • Subplots allow your readers to better understand the reasons why things are happening in the main story. A flashback to the childhood of a main character is an excellent tool to use for this purpose.
  • Subplots allow the reader to learn more about the social setting that the story takes place in.
  • Subplots add suspense and mystery to the main story.
  • Subplots, when used properly, can help to drive the story forward and raise more “what if” questions that need answers.
  • Subplots bring realism to the story and to the characters. Just as real life is rarely black and white, subplots bring the color of real life to the story.

A subplot should never be the main path of the novel, but rather a slight detour that provides depth.
A subplot should never be the main path of the novel, but rather a slight detour that provides depth. | Source

Subplots Should Never Do These Things

Yes, subplots are valuable, but they can also lead to disaster if they are used too often or not used in the right context. Here are some no-nos when using subplots:

  • The word “subplot” literally means “below the main plot” and should be given that priority. Subplots should never be given the same word count as the main story, and they should never be given the same amount of focus as the main story. Remember that subplots are enhancers; they are not the main event.
  • Subplots should never be used as a filler or to take up space. They should have a specific purpose or don’t bother with them.
  • Subplots are about emotional growth. Subplots are about struggle. Subplots are about the shaping of a character or the cause of an event. Make sure your subplots do these things and make sure they engage the emotions of your readers.
  • Subplots are, in a very real sense, a detour from the main story. When crafted properly they are an important detour that can add to the overall strength of that main story. When crafted poorly all they do is distract or weaken. Do not let this happen. Do not go off on a tangent and in the process lose the central theme or message.
  • Beware of too many subplots, and beware of resolving too many subplots all at the same time. The climax of your story should be about the climax of the “main” story; wrapping up several subplots at the same time will confuse the reader.
  • Subplots should never be boring or mundane. Readers get enough of boring and mundane in real life; don’t expect them to sit through more of it while reading for entertainment.

The subplots in any family are part of a greater story
The subplots in any family are part of a greater story | Source

Practical Applications

I have written before about my literary love affair with James Lee Burke. I am a mystery fan, and I discovered Burke about ten years ago and was instantly smitten. His ability to create depth is incredible. His ability to paint a scene is enviable. His ability to weave subplots into the main plot and use them to add complexity to his novels is the stuff of legends among his peers. Yes, I am jealous of James Lee Burke.

His main character is Dave Robicheaux, a sometimes detective for the New Iberia police department outside of New Orleans, Louisiana. In truth, the plots of his stories are no different from hundreds of other mysteries written yearly. What makes his novels so extraordinary is his ability to make them so compelling and life-like.

Robicheaux is a recovering alcoholic….subplot number one. Robicheaux has, as his best friend, Clete Purcel, a human wrecking ball who creates chaos wherever he goes….subplot number two. Robicheaux is married to an ex-nun who is constantly bringing him closer to his finer nature and away from his violent past….subplot number three. Robicheaux is a violent man who is always fighting his own devils….subplot number four. The Louisiana bayou country is beautiful but deadly….subplot number five.

You can practically count on those five subplots in each of Burke’s novels, and they are written so well as to leave you almost breathless while you read. That, my friends, is what a good subplot can do for a writer, and what a good writer can do with a subplot.

Think of the plot as the main river, and the subplots as the tributaries feeding that river
Think of the plot as the main river, and the subplots as the tributaries feeding that river | Source

Now Go Forth and Create

A novelist has between 100,000 and 150,000 words with which to tell his/her story. On average about 300 pages. That is a lot of landscape for the chief character to cover on his own. That is a tough journey when the only vehicle is the main plot.

A writer needs subplots. A story needs subplots. Readers need subplots. Yes, I could write a quick article about Bev and I preparing for the holidays, and it might interest a few of you who know us, but that article becomes much more interesting if I toss in the trials and tribulations of our children and how their lives are deliciously woven into the fabric of our lives. If I do that then I’ll have an article worthy of reading.

Don’t shortchange your novel. Don’t shortchange your readers, and don’t shortchange yourself. Use subplots and the literary world will thank you for it.

2013 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you, Availiasvision. It turned out to be the only way I could develop my other two main characters, so I thought "why not?"

    • Availiasvision profile image

      Jennifer Arnett 3 years ago from California

      Wow, you're doing the brave 1st person/ 3rd person mix. That is gutsy! You don't stop do you? Out goes Tobias into editing and onward onto a new novel. Your work ethic is something to be admired. Onward into battle, my friend!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Availiasvision, my new novel is told in first person, but there are recurring sidebars in third person. You can do it!

    • Availiasvision profile image

      Jennifer Arnett 3 years ago from California

      This was exactly what I needed to hear. I've been going back and forth on whether or not to divert from following my main story line. I want to create a more complete world, but the difficulty of it held me back. My novel is in third person, so I was debating showing the antagonist separate from the protagonist's POV. I know it will really stretch me as a writer, but in the end it will produce a better story.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Ruby and good luck with those stories that await you.

    • Ruby H Rose profile image

      Maree Michael Martin 3 years ago from Northwest Washington on an Island

      Oh yes, subplots are certainly missing from a number of stories asking to be finished. Good to know I can always come here when the gears get stuck. Spring training, lol.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Dianna, this is something that everyone knows but surprisingly a great many writers forget about it when writing a novel. Thanks for the visit.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 3 years ago

      It's the subplots that add to the flavor of a book. I see movies use this as well to keep the audience interested. Useful and full of wisdom, as always.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Deb, I never doubted that you were on the right track. Keep doing what you are doing because you are doing it well. Thank you!

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      From what I have done so far, what you have written about over the past several days shows me that I am on the right track. Thanks, Billy, for your never ending words of wisdom, and your wonderful help.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Anna, thank you as always. I hope all is well in Scotland my friend. Have a great Thursday.

    • Anna Haven profile image

      Anna Haven 3 years ago from Scotland

      You explained this really well by using your family as an example.

      Sub plots help to flesh out the main bones of the tale. Helpful and interesting as always.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      You are very welcome, Ruby! I so appreciate you visiting my hubs about writing when you really aren't that interested in them. :)

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 3 years ago from Southern Illinois

      I wanted to come back and thank you for dedicating yesterday's beautiful hub to me. How very pleased i am.....Cheers..

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Nadine, believe me, it is my pleasure. I love to share what I have learned. Thank you for being so loyal.

    • Nadine May profile image

      Nadine May 3 years ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

      Again great advice. I always learn something from your hubs on writing . Thank you for being such a good writing coach.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you vkwok!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Melissa, to answer your question, the paths to writing a novel are as different as the writers. I weave them in during my first draft. I know other who finish the main story and then go back and add subplots. It really is a personal preference.

      Thanks for stopping by my friend. For goodness sake stay warm and safe.

    • vkwok profile image

      Victor W. Kwok 3 years ago from Hawaii

      Thanks for the useful tips. I'll definitely try some subplotting.

    • mpropp profile image

      Melissa Propp 3 years ago from Minnesota

      Great article and I will definitely have to check out a book by James Lee Burke. I do have a question about adding subplots. Do most people write the main story and then weave in subplots, or do they usually develop organicly as you are writing the novel? If you work with an outline, then I would think it would be easier to weave them in, but if you don't then I can see where you might run into the issue of having a subplot "take over" the main plot?

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Chitrangada, thank you very much. I hope you find this helpful in your writings.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Wiccan, so glad this is helpful. Thanks for stopping by; I'll be over to see your new one shortly.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      writingowl, thank you so much. I appreciate your visit.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Alicia, I don't think you will be disappointed. Give him a try to let me know what you think. Thank you!

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 3 years ago from New Delhi, India

      This is very informative and helpful! Very important tips to keep in mind, when writing Subplots in a Novel.

      Thanks for sharing your experience!

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 3 years ago

      What a great hub, Billie. I have been writing nonfiction for a long time and I'm trying to make the break to fiction, so I find it most helpful. I knew subplots were useful but you really clear it up for me here, especially what to try to avoid. Another great hub, voted up and bookmarked! Thanks!

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Informative, useful and most helpful to all writers.

    • thewritingowl profile image

      Mary Kelly Godley 3 years ago from Ireland

      Spot on as always and explained accurately and to the point.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is another very useful hub to add to your great collection at HubPages, Bill! I've never read anything by James Lee Burke, but after reading your recommendation I'm going to. He sounds like a writer that is worth investigating.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Mary, that is a lovely thing for you to tell me. I have a big old smile on my face right now. Thank you so much. All of us writers need validation and encouragement. Writing is hard....period. Anyone who doesn't think it so is not doing it correctly. :)

    • Mary McShane profile image

      Mary McShane 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale, Florida

      Thank you for laying this out in such an easy to understand way.

      The more I read your hubs, the more I am assured that I am on the right path. You make me want to work that much harder to keep on writing. Especially when in the past, (former) friends have told me I'm wasting my time on fiction and that I should stick with writing on health matters. Criticism is always hard to take but it helps to have an even balance with "hey, great work!"

      Whether you know it or not, your hubs are validation for some and a support system for many writers who sign on every day to read your insights ... and then they go forth with what they have learned. I am one of them. Thank you for being a great teacher.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you so much, Flourish. It's always nice to hear that I didn't miss the mark. :)

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Faith, I love your analogy (simile) of the appetizers and main dish. Right on my wise friend.

      As always, thanks to you for your loyalty and friendship.

      blessings always

      bill

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      Your examples were extraordinarily helpful in reinforcing your message. Excellent hub!

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 3 years ago from southern USA

      They are like little appetizers along the way to the main dish, possibly? : )

      Good advice as always dear Bill! Yes, important to be mindful for the subplots to overtake the main plot! Yikes, that would not be good at all. Then you would need to just start another story for sure.

      Up and more and sharing

      Blessings,

      Faith Reaper

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Ruby! I dedicate tomorrow's hub to you.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 3 years ago from Southern Illinois

      I love learning new ideas. You are a great teacher! Thank you...

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Sheila, that's a great point and a very limiting factor in tv shows. "the book was better" is a common refrain when people see the movie that was spawned from a book...and with good reason...much more depth in a book. Thanks for your thoughts.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Ann, I'm not sure it would guarantee success, but it would guarantee me buying a copy. LOL Thank you for such loyalty and such wonderful words. I'm just a teacher who likes to share. :)

      bill

    • profile image

      sheilamyers 3 years ago

      Wonderful advice! I think the lack of subplots in many TV dramas is why I prefer reading a book over watching the actors. So many times I watch crime dramas and never see the cops family life. That's why I show that in my books. As you said, that life and what happens at home affects how the guy acts at work and vice versa.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 3 years ago from SW England

      Brilliant! Once again you make us understand so well the reasons for writing in various ways, or not. Your analogies are so apt which is why they are so useful in your messages.

      I like the 'layers of texture' to reflect nature and the detour from the main path to provide depth. You paint a clear picture of something complicated so that we can grasp the point but most of all you paint it with a humour and an enthusiasm which inspire.

      When I eventually get round to this novel of mine, I'll have a pile of your notes at hand and therefore a prizewinner at my fingertips!!!

      Perhaps I'll make you one of my characters; guaranteed success! LOL

      Ann

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Sha, it is very easy to do, giving too much importance to the subplot. It is a tricky dance finding just the right amount of emphasis for those darn subplots. Good luck dear friend.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      DJ, thank you! Allora is a beauty, isn't she? I'll tell her you said so. The blonde is the "girlfriend of the month" for one of Bev's sons. She is already gone from the picture....it being January of course. LOL

      Historical fiction covering decades? Ala James Michener? I love it. I hate history when I was a kid; naturally I ended up teaching it. God does have a sense of humor. :)

      Carry on my friend and thank you.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I love it Donna! Subplots and actual historical characters...a tricky path to take but one that should prove very rewarding and entertaining. Best wishes to you on this chilly morning and thank you.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 3 years ago from Central Florida

      This is yet another bit of advice I will hang onto. I will pay particular attention to not letting the subplot(s) overtake the main plot.

      Valuable lesson here, Bill!

    • profile image

      DJ Anderson 3 years ago

      Bill, I am writing a historical fiction which covers four generations.

      Naturally, the characters have to die off, leaving me with the younger

      generation and their new challenges. These new challenges are my subplots. I am hoping I can manage to tie it all together at the end.

      For someone who never cared for history, I cannot seem to get enough,

      at this time in my life. This novel was inspired by one of your pictures,

      and I am not sure which photo. But, it was all it took to set me hopping.

      I have done enough research to, well, to write a book!!!

      Another super hub.

      Many thanks.

      DJ.

      PS. Your stepdaughter is absolutely beautiful. She should be a model!

      Who is the blonde in the forefront? This is how I get into trouble with my son. I ask too many questions. "Interrogations" is his term. LOL

    • cygnetbrown profile image

      Donna Brown 3 years ago from Alton, Missouri

      Again, another timely article. Today I am working on subplots involving a couple of actual historical characters. You'll never guess who? I'll give you a couple of hints: British aristocracy, American Revolution, Bookstore, artillery.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Joelle, it would be exhausting and boring if the main character had to do all the work. :) Subplots take a little pressure off of that character.

      Thanks for sharing part of your Monday with me.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Eddy! I prided myself on being a good teacher when I worked in schools; it's nice to hear that maybe I didn't lose the touch. :) Blessings to you always and of course,

      love

      billy

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Dora, it is my pleasure my friend. I hope it helped you in some way. Have a great week.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks Kathryn! I have caught myself putting a subplot in just because I thought it looked good...turns out it served no purpose whatsoever. I have one right now in my current novel that I am debating pulling. :) Our work is never done, is it?

    • kidscrafts profile image

      kidscrafts 3 years ago from Ottawa, Canada

      So many things to think about... the right "dosage" of subplots, the subplots should not supplant the main story but has it's place within the story. As you wrote, the main character has a lot to cover by himself so it's good to have subplots and it makes the story more interesting as well!

      Thanks for sharing those new thoughts!

      Enjoy your day!

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

      You really are a wonderful teacher Billy ;not only do I take in every word from you I also remember afterwards. I will now continue with my novel with fresh eyes. Looking forward to your next lesson my friend.

      Love from Wales.

      Eddy.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 3 years ago from The Caribbean

      Thank you for teaching so clearly on what's good and what's not about subplots. Makes perfect sense for example, in explaining the reasons why things are happening in the main story. Adds suspense for sure! Thank you, again and Voted Up!

    • Kathryn Stratford profile image

      Kathryn 3 years ago from Manchester, Connecticut

      When I was at the heart of writing my main book that hasn't been typed up yet, I was fascinated with working subplots into the story. Some were already there, and some came to me as an inspiration partway through, so that when I went through it a second time I meticulously made sure everything was consistent with that subplot. It felt exciting to add that kind of depth to my story.

      When I go through my story again, I will make sure that all of the subplots really do serve a purpose, and not just my own desire for variety.

      Thanks, Bill. Voted up, sharing and pinning.

      Have a great day, and I hope your weekend went well.

      ~ Kathryn

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Eric, I remember well the subplots when I taught school. Little soap operas that daily entertained. Have fun and hurry back to us....and thanks buddy.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Hooray, Jackie. We had almost an unnatural thrill when ours started laying....and in the dead of winter they are still laying. Now you can go out every day and have something to look forward to.

      Have a great week my friend and thank you.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 3 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      I will go into both my offices today to interface personally though I could do all my work here. But then I would miss out on the subplots of office relationships. This is the juice. I love it when a subplot gives a whole new twist on the words the main character uses.

      Thanks for breaking it down.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 3 years ago from The Beautiful South

      Good advice and I think I have done that in each of my stories even my childrens (preteen) one. I do think it is important to show life goes on, even around the plot!

      Guess what? I am getting eggs! 2 yesterday and one today! I am so thrilled. Maybe that heat lamp is making them happy?

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Janine, thank you for the kind words. Information like this is worthless if I keep it to myself. If this helps someone then fantastic.

      Thank you for your friendship. You are a good human being and I'm honored to call you friend.

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 3 years ago from New York, New York

      I always feel like I learn so much from you when I read your articles, especially those pertaining to novel writing. You seriously know your craft my friend and no one could ever deny that. Thank you for again sharing your wisdom here and you know I have pinned to use as a reference when I am in need of using subplots now. Thanks Bill and have a great Monday now, too!