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Writing: Subplots, Pt. 2—How to Integrate Them

So once I’ve decided on a subplot or two, how do I actually weave them into the story? This was the new question I was left with after my last post.

The subplot rabbit hole revealed a few ways to do this. 

According to Jenn at Herded Words, there are three main ways to add your subplots. The first is a subplot that is Separate from the main plot, that is, the events in the subplot don’t intersect with the main plot until near the end or climax of the novel. The second, In & Out, type weaves in and out of the main plot, with the characters’ actions adding to the main plot when they intersect. The third, Jenn calls the Sandwich because it is placed at the beginning and the end of the novel, slices of bread on a sandwich.

Over at the Writer’s Digest website, they had a guest post from Elizabeth Sims, who describes seven ways to integrate subplots. Three of these seven are similar to the ones described at Hereded Words: the Parallel Lines is the same as the Separate, the In-and-Out is the same, and the Bookends is Jenn’s Sandwich. 

The four additional integration techniques are the Isolated Chunk, which is a story within the main story, or a sort of “side trip,” as Sims put it; the Swallowtail, which is similar to the Parallel Lines except that it merges with the main plot sooner; the Bridge Character, which is a character who has limited time in the story and who functions to tie together two otherwise disparate groups within the story; and the Clue, which is primarily for mysteries, suspense and thrillers, or any time when you want to leave clues to a puzzle throughout the narrative.

K. M. Weiland, on her website Helping Writers Become Authors, advocates two basic methods for integrating subplots and they’re not “either/or” but can both work in the same story: one, have the minor character subplots play out within the main character scenes, which works because every character in a scene has their own goals, and as long as you, the author, make those goals related to either the protagonists goals or to the story’s overall theme, then those subplot elements will tie together pretty neatly. Two, give the subplot its own scene, however, she does recommend doing this option sparingly.

Interestingly, Harvey Chapman, in his article “How to Add Subplots to Your Story,” advocates very similar options to Weiland’s: either add separate subplot scenes between main plot scenes or have subplot elements within main plot scenes.

Now I say, “interestingly,” because Weiland and Chapman have diametrically opposed opinions as to subplots: Weiland states that she believes that there really are no subplots—all subplots should be so integral to the main plot that to remove any of them would be detrimental to the whole. Chapman, contrary-wise, says that subplots are akin to strands in a rope: separate and capable of being removed without ruining the whole. In fact, Chapman goes so far as to say that you should write the main plot and subplots independently and then add the subplots to the main plot.

To be honest, I’m not sure what to do with this difference of opinion, and since it didn’t stop them from coming to the same conclusion about what to do with the subplots, I’m just going to ignore that debate and focus on the options for integration.

Now I just need to take a look at my main plot and subplots and see what method will work best for my story!

Sources mentioned in this post:

Jenn, “Adding Subplots to Your Story [3 Types & 3 Methods],”

Elizabeth Sims, “7 Ways to Add Great Subplots to Your Novel,”

K. M. Weiland, “5 Tips for Organizing Subplots,”

Harvey Chapman, “How to Add Subplots to Your Story,”

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