Pamela Koehne-Drube

Written by

Pamela Koehne-Drube

16 October 2023


5 Tips to Write a Good Subplot That Every Writer Needs to Know

Mind mapping subplots - Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

A subplot is a secondary plotline in your story. To write a good subplot, you should support and enhance the main story arc, adding depth and complexity. Subplots are an effective tool for adding more conflict, characterization, and tension to your story. They can be used as a way of foreshadowing future events or can occur in parallel with the main narrative.

How do you write a good subplot for your story?

Subplots let you explore what’s happening in other parts of your story, like the relationships between characters or the evolution of a theme. But subplots are notoriously difficult to write, and most authors struggle with them at some point.

Subplots can be the single most brilliant part of your novel, or they can be the least interesting. A strong subplot adds depth to your story and keeps readers engaged with a second narrative thread, while a weak one becomes an afterthought that fails to engage readers and ultimately distracts from the main story.

The primary functions your subplot should serve are to add variety to your story, support the central theme of the main narrative arc, and introduce complications that can affect the direction of your main plotline.

If you want to write a good subplot, there are rules for how to do it. If you follow these five helpful tips, then writing your own will be easier than ever before!

Rule #1 – Know what kind of subplot you want to introduce

The first step to creating a compelling subplot is knowing what type of subplot you want to introduce. While there are many different narrative arcs you can choose from, there are five common functions that your subplot can serve, and knowing what that function is in advance will help you focus your storytelling.

There are five of the most common types of subplots:

  • Mirror Subplots; a smaller-scale conflict mirrors that of the main character in order to teach them a valuable lesson or illuminate how to resolve the conflict
  • Contrasting Subplots; a secondary character faces similar circumstances and dilemmas as the main character but makes different decisions with the opposite outcome
  • Complicating Subplots; a secondary character makes matters worse for the main character
  • Expository Subplots; a character from the past or near present shows how their actions shape the reality your protagonist inhabits
  • Romantic Subplots; the main character has a love interest, and this relationship complicates the main plot
Write a good subplot example from Pride and Prejudice - Screenshot courtesy of Plottr
This Plot breakdown of Pride and Prejudice is courtesy of Plottr

Rule #2 – The subplot must have its own arc

A subplot should have its own beginning, middle, and end. You don’t want to confuse your readers by having too many different storylines going on at once.

Remember that subplots are not just a distraction from the main story. They should add more depth to the overall narrative by offering different perspectives or points of view. It’s also important to make sure your subplot stands on its own, meaning it should feature its own characters and events that add dimension to both stories being told at once.

The most common mistake that writers make is using a subplot as filler material for their story. A subplot shouldn’t just add flavour; it needs its own purpose and relevance within the context of both narrative arcs—and if it doesn’t do that, then there’s no need for it in the first place.

This is where it’s important to refer back to rule #1. If you know the kind of subplot you want to introduce and plan with that in advance, you’ll have a better chance of creating a self-contained narrative arc for it, even if it’s only in your book for a scene or two.

Rule #3 – It must have at least one character that ties it to the main plot

You need to ensure that the subplot somehow connects to the main plot. Otherwise, it’s just an unrelated side story and will feel like filler for your novel.

Your sub-plot character must be recognizable by the reader. This means that they must have a reason for being in your story, and it’s best if their role is clear from early on, even if their connection to the main plot is not immediately apparent. Their motivation should be clear too: what does this person want? What drives them?

They should have goals to achieve those things—and there should be obstacles standing in the way of them achieving those goals. It’s essential that these secondary characters aren’t too similar or generic; otherwise, they won’t add anything meaningful or interesting to your story. They need specific traits and quirks so you can understand how they fit into everything else happening around them, while still making sense as individuals with distinct personalities who exist outside of your main plotline.

Introduce one or more characters into the subplot whose actions have consequences in both arcs and who serve as catalysts for action in both plots. Give both sets of characters similar motivations (or at least mutually exclusive ones) so they can react strongly against each other.

The characters from your subplot don’t necessarily have to have a direct connection to your protagonist. They could simply have created something important to your main character, which is not revealed to them until late in the narrative. The main thing is that there is a connection.

Person mind mapping to write a good subplot - Photo by Brands&People on Unsplash

Rule #4 – Your subplot must add something new

A subplot should not be introduced unless it adds something to the book that wasn’t there before. It doesn’t mean that you can’t repeat themes, but it does mean that you want a new character or situation that will change the story in some way.

Sometimes this is achieved by giving the reader more information than the characters of the main plot have, but it can even be something as simple as showing an alternative emotional response to certain events than those your protagonist displays.

Despite needing to add something new, however, it’s vital that your subplot is not distracting from the main plot. You want it to serve and enhance, not to overshadow.

Rule #5 – It must support your main plot

Subplots should support the main plot, not detract from it. If you have a subplot that tries to distract from the main plot, it will most likely make your story feel disjointed and unfocused.

If you take any piece of advice away, let it be this: make sure your main plot and subplot are related!

The two plots must be connected somehow; otherwise, they won’t seem relevant. By having a subplot that can complement and enhance the main plot by adding another dimension or element, it will provide balance to your story and make sure it doesn’t feel too focused on one thing.

Think of your subplots like a superhero sidekick, or the pit crew in Formula 1 racing. They’re absolutely essential to success but never overshadow or detract from the main event.

The key to writing subplots that will keep your readers engaged and coming back for more is to make sure they’re relevant and helpful to the central plot. If you can do this, then you’ll be well on your way toward creating a story that people will want to read again and again!