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Writing: Subplots—Where to Find Them

I think I’ve pretty well nailed down my main plot (at least for now, who knows what will happen when I actually start writing it). So now I am looking at subplots because I have heard that a story without subplots can feel rather shallow and one dimensional, and if I’m going to go to all this trouble, I don’t want that to be was gets me the bad reviews.

Most of the sources I’ve looked into about subplots agree on a few things. First, that subplots are not separate plots—if you can pull a subplot out without affecting the main plot at all, then it shouldn’t be there in the first place. Subplots need to be significant to the main plot. Second, subplots are structurally similar to, but simpler than, the main plot. Third, subplots can add dimensions to the protagonist as well as the story world. Fourth, subplots can reveal backstory.

Now for the differences, however subtle and merely semantic the differences might actually be.

Jed Herne, in his video “Harry Potter: How to Write Good Subplots,” said subplots should revolve around a goal driven character.

Now, Lisa Cron, in her book Story Genius, might agree with Herne, but with the caveat that the goal, or agenda, of the subplot character should facilitate the story you’re telling.

According to an article by C.S. Lakin posted on the Writers Helping Writers website, subplots should complicate things for your protagonist. But in a way that is significant to the protagonist’s journey in the story—no fair throwing in a complication that has nothing to do with either the main plot or the story’s theme.

A handy tip on figuring out how to create subplots came from Now Novel’s “Subplot Ideas: 5 Tips for Writing Better Subplots.” They recommend choosing one of three types of subplot: Romantic, Conflict, and Expository. When narrowing your ideas down, look for subplots that do all the things good subplots do: enhance the main plot, increase tension, reveal different sides of characters (flaws, strengths, motivations), or tell backstory.

The most actionable advice I came across, though, was from Cron. In her book, she details how to find the subplots—ones based on external events as well as those based on character and backstory.

If you’ve got your protagonist well developed, and a fairly fleshed out main plot, you can look through what you already have to find places where the seeds of subplot are already planted. What things are already set in motion before the story even begins? What characters besides the protagonist are key players? Is there anything or anyone in the protagonist’s backstory that is relevant?

I found those questions to be really helpful in developing subplots. Now my next rabbit hole will need to answer what to do with the subplots once I’ve got them. Wish me luck!

Sources mentioned in this post:

Jed Herne, “Harry Potter: How to Write Good Subplots,”

C.S. Lakin, “How to Add Meaningful Subplots to Your Novel,”

Now Novel, “Subplot Ideas: 5 Tips for Writing Better Subplots,”

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