A secondary strand to your story is called a subplot and subplots can connect to your main plot either in time or place, or thematically. They may involve the same characters or different characters, or an interweaving of your protagonists and antagonists with different people in a different times and places. By definition subplots should not take up as much space as the main plot, by they need much care and attention or else they will derail your story and cause more problems than they are worth.
There are many advantages to weaving one or more subplots into your story:
- you can show a different aspect of your protagonist, one that can’t be revealed through your main story
- you can change the pace or mood of your story, slowing it down or speeding it up with a scene from a subplot
- reinforce your theme and moral premise
- add a sense of realism by introducing complications that a re a normal part of life
- make life more difficult for your protagonist
- reveal aspects of your antagonist’s motivations, goals and behaviours
- add humour or light moments to a heavy plot.
While it is a good idea to envisage subplots during your book-planning stage, they can sometimes introduce themselves after you have started writing, either as a clever way to solve a problem, or as a way to add complexity and interest. Either way, just make sure they don’t take over with a grand life of their own. Any subplot your introduce must pass the rationale test: what is the point of this side action? what will it achieve?
You can apply subplots in a variety of different ways. Here are a few suggestions:
- one-off events that show up an aspect of your protagonist or test them in some way
- secondary protagonist or antagonist activities running first in parallel, that converge with your main story at some point, either right at the end or somewhere in the middle
- dipping in and out regularly as your protagonist interests with separate people
- bookend or payback, when an early subplot re-emerges almost at the end for a sweet, or bitter-sweet, victory
- clue-dropping—essential for crime, mystery and thriller
- devils advocate—a person who regularly goads your protagonist in some way.
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