Expanding Your Story with a Subplot

Originally Posted October 10, 2020 by Joe K.
Last Updated February 08, 2023
A lot of people have heard the phrase subplot, but what exactly does it entail? What characters should be included? Are there elements that are expected? What’s the purpose of a subplot? Do I need to include one in my story?

You probably have a general idea when it comes to subplots, but did you know that there are layers that can feed back into your main overarching arc and enhance your overall book? Let’s look at what a subplot is, and what a subplot isn’t.

Your story follows your main character through a journey from point A to point B. Along the way, they face challenges and struggles, and eventually go through a process that changes them, and they make it to the end of the line. 

Buried deeper, there’s usually a theme. It’s the reason behind the story. Think good vs. evil as an example. Maybe your character is trying to triumph over evil but needs to suffer before they win in the end. 

A subplot is a thread that braids through the main tale and usually involves side characters, whether the best friend, antagonist, or some other character who’s important to the protagonist in some way. In this side bit, the most important thing to remember is that your subplot is a complete story, and it needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end

A subplot is a great opportunity to showcase your theme from another perspective. When it comes to building a subplot, there should be purpose behind the side venture. Put simply, it needs a reason to be there. Otherwise, it would be watching Game of Thrones, but in the middle of it for no reason, Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer’s story intertwines. Sure, Rudolph is a full story, but it brings nothing to the Game of Thrones. They simply don’t go together. 

A subplot adds another layer. 

Important elements of a subplot:

  •  Beginning, middle, end
  •  Side/supporting characters, not usually the lead
  •  May show another perspective of your overall theme
  •  Should not be a tangent that runs into the wild and has no purpose

Subplot Example

Let’s look at an example from a popular movie. Most people are familiar with stories like The Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, and popular animated Disney movies. 

Let’s take Lion King for example. Two characters who added tons of personality to the plot were Pumbaa and Timone. If you remember, there were offshoots where their characters were the main focus of the scene. Simba meets them, they connect, they become a family of sorts. So, the beginning of a subplot tells another story, but still relates to the main overarching story. Simba meeting the two, amusing characters is a fun part of the film, but really, it’s more about getting to know these other characters and the journey they all go through together. This B story braids into the A story, but it tells a story from their perspective, rather than the main character. The main story is Simba’s journey to become the new king.

Subplot Ideas

Other places you’ll see subplots for example are in action movies. You’ll often have a love story overlapping into the main aspect. Now, is it because the box office felt that a romance would help pacify the female portion of the audience of big thriller movies? Maybe at the time, but these days, it’s almost part of the formula. 

What’s really going on? Okay, here’s the deal. Sure, back in the day, that might have been one of the reasons they did it, to draw wider audiences, but there’s more going on then meets the eye. In an action movie, the hero is usually bigger than life. This subplot gives the audience a chance to see another side of the character. We see them softer, gentler, more empathetic. This allows you to connect with them, and care more about the protagonist. 

It’s a B story that braids into A story. If you take it out, A story would still exist, but B story gives it another layer. It offers you depth and gives you a fresh perspective on a situation or a character. 

Sometimes, writers will use flashbacks for their subplot. In this, they look back at another time like the hero’s childhood. It might be to reveal something about the character in another way. Just like the romance we mentioned above, it may tell the story from another character’s perspective, or show another side of the character to understand why they react a certain way. 

However, when you choose to add a subplot, make sure it’s relevant. Also, remember it needs a beginning, middle, and end. And if you removed it from the book completely, your story A could still stand on its own. 

How to Write a Good Romance Subplot

Let’s take a brief look at how to write a good romance subplot, so you have something to return to when you’re starting out. This works in any genre, but for now, we’ll be using romance as the example.

Because your romance is already a love story, you won’t be using this for your subplot. What you can do though is expand on another main character, like your heroine’s best friend or a family situation.

It would look something like this:

  • Beginning: Best friend stumbles into an old friend/or new acquaintance and feels a spark
  • Middle: Not sure they should connect with this person, because they just got out of a relationship (small conflict) and are afraid it will be a rebound
  • End: Connects with this new person, and realizes she’s ready to move forward with them
Bonus: If you’re writing a series, your next book can be about the budding relationship.

Let’s do one more, this time for a drama:

  • Beginning: Antagonist trying to do good when they are younger
  • Middle: Something happens that causes them to rethink their path, and they’re challenged in a new way
  • End: Why they are now the “bad person” after previous experience
Bonus: give your antagonist heart, or a strong reason for your audience to be conflicted on whether to feel sorry for them, root for them, or be disgusted. Think about conflicting morals and ethics.

Now, these are very basic, but they are to help you understand that the subplot adds something to your book, but taken out, it doesn’t hurt the main story. What it does is give your book more dimension and helps us understand your other characters more. It can also speak on the theme. Maybe in the romance subplot example above, it mirrors what’s going on in the protagonists’ journey, but the side character makes a different choice. 

When it comes to adding subplots, there should be a reason they exist. What would enhance the experience for the reader? 

Subplots are a great way to not only add depth, but also bulk up a story as well, when you’d like to add a bit of length. Just don’t get caught up and make the subplot a better tale than the main plot! 

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