5 Tips for Organizing Subplots

Imagine you walk into a candy shop, but what you discover inside, instead of candy, is display after display of subplots. Enough to make any writer’s mouth water, right? Writers love the idea of subplots. They’re rich, juicy, complex, and full of opportunities for taking your story to the next level. But organizing subplots, or even just figuring out what your subplots are? That can sometimes be trickier.

I’m often asked about subplots, but it’s one of those subjects (like POV) that is bigger than just a simple answer. This is because subplots, when done right, are all but camouflaged within the larger story. Good subplots integrate with the main plot to the point they’re inextricable from the story’s bigger picture.

In short: you can’t master the art of organizing subplots without mastering the art of plotting itself.

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

For that, of course, you need story structure, character arc, theme, and all that fun junk. But today, let’s assume you’ve already packed your cart with your nourishing vegetables, which leaves you free to fulfill your sweet tooth by raiding Ye Olde Subplot Shoppe.

The Great Myth of Subplots

Confession time.

I actually don’t even like talking about subplots. Whenever someone asks me “how do I write subplots?”, it makes me incredibly squirmy. I don’t have a good simple answer (which is why it’s taken me ten years to write a full-blown post on the subject), for the simple reason that subplots are not a good way to think about story.

In fact, I recommend you stop thinking about subplots altogether. Instead, just think about plot.

If your subplot doesn’t work within the larger plot to the point that it’s inextricable from it, then it simply doesn’t work. If you find yourself thumbing through your manuscript and going, “Subplot, subplot, subplot!,” it may well be because the subplots are sticking out like speed bumps on the highway.

When I sit down to plot a novel, I never think in terms of subplots. My stories are usually huge, sprawling, complex, and peopled with big casts. Do they have subplots? Of course. But I don’t think of them that way. I don’t want subplots in my stories. I don’t want to hand readers a jumbled box full of really cool odds and ends. Instead, I want to give them one big cohesive plot that sparkles like a multi-faceted diamond.

Which is all to say: yes, today, we’re talking subplots, and, yes, I’m about to break this all down for you to show you what subplots are and how you can manage them. But the most important thing you can take away is that if it looks like a subplot, cut it.

The 3 Central Plotlines

Before we can talk about what a subplot is, we first have to talk about what it isn’t. By definition, a subplot is not the main plot, which means we first need to understand what constitutes the main plot.

In most fully-formed stories, there are three aspects to the main plot.

1. The External Conflict

When we talk about “plot,” this is probably the first thing to spring to mind. The external conflict is the physical aspect of the conflict. It revolves around a specific plot goal based on the Thing the Character Wants. The character is trying to do something or gain something—but an antagonistic force keeps putting obstacles in his way. The act of the protagonist overcoming those obstacles creates the forward momentum that drives the plot, all the way from his conception of the goal at the First Plot Point to the Climactic Moment, where he either definitively gains or loses his objective.

Dreamlander NIEA Finalist

For example, in my portal fantasy sequel work-in-progress Dreambreaker, the protagonist Chris Redston (who previously, in Dreamlander—which you can grab for free right now—visited a parallel “dream” world as the only Gifted of his generation) has the main plot goal of stopping the cataclysms that are once again threatening to destroy the balance between worlds.

2. The Main Relationship

External conflict is great: it powers the story. But it’s rarely enough to truly engage readers on a deeper level. For that, you need the emotional stakes of a relationship. This could be a romance, a friendship, a business partnership, or a parent/child relationship. Whatever it is, it is directly connected to the main conflict. Either:

  • the relationship’s positive outcome hinges upon a positive outcome in the external conflict
  • the relationship creates the conflict
  • the conflict creates the relationship

Whatever the case, the protagonist must have a goal in this relationship, even if it is largely unspoken. Usually, it is simply for “the relationship to work out.”

For example, although Dreambreaker is about Chris saving the worlds, what it’s really about is Chris’s ongoing and uncertain relationship with Allara Katadin, Queen of Lael. Yes, he wants to end the danger to everyone, but on a more personal level, what he really wants is just to be with her in a healthy and permanent relationship.

3. The Internal Conflict

Creating Character ArcsBoth of the above are external manifestations of the story’s theme, which plays out within the protagonist’s internal conflict. His character arc will be linked to his actions in the external conflict. The conflict between the Lie He Believes and the Truth that can set him free, between the Thing He Wants and the Thing He Needs—this is the true heart of your story.

Although the character arc can play a background role within a noisy story, it is never ancillary. The more integral it is to the external plot, the more powerful the story.

For example, in Dreambreaker, Chris has to deal with misconceptions about the nature of total sacrifice and what we’re “owed” by life—which directly feed into his actions in the external plot.

4 Types of Subplot

Now that you can see what subplots are not… what are they?

There are four primary categories of conflicts, which although integral to the story are still subordinate to the main conflicts mentioned above. Think of them in terms of supporting the main conflict. If they aren’t an integral beam within your structural house, they don’t belong.

1. Minor Character Relationships

Most of the complexity of subplots arises from the supporting cast. Technically, to create a solid storyform, you need only three types of character (protagonist, antagonist, relationship character), but most stories offer up much larger casts—and, along with them, more complexity in the plot—and, thus, subplots.

Your protagonist may be working through conflicts with more than one relationship character. Each of these relationship characters will, in turn, have their own goals within the external plot, and, optimally, their own internal conflicts as well.

For example, in Dreambreaker, Chris also has to interact with his doppelganger family in the dream world, all of whom have expectations for him, some of which conflict with his own goals.

2. Minor POV Characters

Your story may take these minor character relationships to the next level by giving any number of these characters POVs of their own. The moment you do this, you elevate these characters to the level of “mini-protagonists,” which means you will explore their external, internal, and relationship goals in almost as much depth as you do the protagonist’s.

The most important thing to keep in mind here is that, despite the popular mantra, these supporting characters are not the heroes of their stories—not really. Their narratives, however cursory or complete, must contribute to the protagonist’s in a foundational way.

For example, Dreambreaker introduces the POV of a new minor character, a street-wise Cherazim named Thorne, who is a relationship character for Chris while also pursuing his own goals in the plot and his own problems in the theme. His storyline runs largely outside of Chris’s—until the Climax, where the two directly impact each other.

3. Lower Levels of Antagonists

We’ve talked before about the varying levels of antagonism you can feature in your story. Every story will have a primary antagonistic force—the one directly opposing your protagonist’s main plot goal. But you can also feature smaller antagonists who interfere with your protagonist on his way up the mountain to face the Big Boss.

But, again, these antagonists can’t create detours for the protagonist. Instead, they must ultimately be stepping stones in that journey up the mountain.

For example, as epic fantasy, Dreambreaker is giving me the opportunity to explore just about every level of antagonism, all the way from world-ending stakes down to political rivals and personal betrayals.

4. Minor Antagonist Goals

Finally, in direct relation to the above, you can also focus on sidelong antagonists and their goals. These are characters who are not necessarily affiliated with the main antagonistic force, but who have their own agenda, which at some point is at cross-purposes to your protagonist’s. These characters don’t even have to be “bad”; they could just be frustrated allies who decide to take matters into their hands at the wrong moment.

For example, one of my favorite new characters in Dreambreaker is Allara’s uncle, Prince Justus Katadin, who has been imprisoned for treason for twenty years—and has some very definite ideas about payback.

5 Tips for Organizing Subplots

Now you know what subplots are and aren’t. So what do you do with them? How do you weave them into your story in a way that enhances rather than detracts? And if you’re writing a story as complex as, say, epic fantasy, how do you keep track of all those little devils?

Here are five ways.

1. Create Your Subplots, Pt. 1: What Are Your Minor Characters’ Goals?

Did you notice how every single one of the sections we talked about above revolved around somebody’s goal? Goal is the engine that drives conflict. Without it, there is nothing for the antagonistic force to oppose—and no story.

Just like plot itself, your subplots need to originate from someone’s overpowering desire.

Examine your supporting characters. Make a list of their names, and beside each name, write down what this character wants in this story. Some of the wants will be evident, some won’t. But don’t stop until you’ve brainstormed a goal for each character. Whether or not these goals become prominent in the main story, you will have instantly fleshed out your entire cast.

And if any of the characters’ goals turn out to have little to nothing to do with the main plot? Well then, you may just have found a character you can safely cut.

2. Create Your Subplots, Pt. 2: What Are Your Protagonist’s Minor Goals?

Even though your protagonist’s primary focus will be on gaining his main goal and defeating the main antagonistic force, he can also be the catalyst for subplots. Complex characters want more than one thing—or at least more than one facet of the same thing.

Jane Eyre Writer's Digest Annotated Classic K.M> WeilandBut be wary. The protagonist’s minor goals must ultimately tie into the execution of his main goal. It’s fine for Jane Eyre to want take care of Adele and want to figure out what creepiness is going on in Thornfield’s attic—while also wanting to figure out her relationship to Mr. Rochester. But it would not be fine if another subplot had her wanting to earn enough money to erect a mausoleum for her dead childhood friend Helen Burns.

3. Evaluate Your Subplot’s Necessity: What’s Its Role in the Climax?

Not sure if a subplot is really necessary to your story? Just take a look at the Climax. The subplot must be one of the following:

1. Concluded in the Climax.

2. Important to creating the Climax.

3. Directly impacted by the Climax.

If not, it’s going to (at best) require a climax of its own, which (at best) detracts from your story’s structural integrity.

But it gets more complicated. It’s not enough for your subplots to be directly related to your external conflict. They must also tie into your story’s theme. Every subplot in your story should reflect upon your story’s main Lie/Truth in some way. If the main theme asks “what is sacrifice?,” then your subplots must either directly comment on this question, or at least explore related ideas, such as “conviction,” “selfishness,” or “treachery.”

4. List and Color Code Subplots

Again, I don’t necessarily recommend brainstorming subplots outside of brainstorming your plot. But as you learn more and more about your story’s big picture, you will be able to identify the smaller integers that have created it. You can break this down into a handy list, so you can identify all the different threads in your plot.

You may then want to take this one step further and create a color code for each item on your list. You can then use this color-coding system through your outline or manuscript to help you easily identify where each of these subplots shows up, how prevalent it is, and when and how it will be resolved.

Color Coded Subplots in Dreambreaker

5. Combine Subplots Into Main Plot Scenes

What’s our rule of thumb for the day?

That’s right: There are no subplots, just plots.

As such, your goal is to integrate your subplot ideas into your main plot so seamlessly they’re inextricable. Although you will probably need to create certain scenes that revolve entirely around subplot ideas, it’s best if you can weave them into your main plotline’s concerns as much as possible.

Let’s say your scene is focused on your protagonist pursuing his main plot goal in the external conflict. But present in the scene are several minor characters—and every one of them has goals of their own. These goals power subplots, which interact in this scene with the main plot. Suddenly, the subplots can’t exist without the main plot, and the main plot can’t exist without the subplots.

And just like magic: there are no subplots.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How are you organizing subplots in your work-in-progress? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Whew! I was a little concerned that I didn’t have any subplots. It’s nice to know that you don’t have to think of your subplots as `okay, plotting the subplot now.’ I actually do have some, they’re just hard to untangle from the main plot, and I’m glad that’s not a bad thing.

  2. Tom Youngjohn says:

    This was brilliant.

  3. Tom Youngjohn says:

    You need a Patreon account, or a PayPal account or something. Can’t really afford an $80 talk. But I could send you $40 just for being you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s on my radar. Just haven’t gotten around to figuring out appropriate patron rewards. But thanks!

  4. TheTimeIsWrite says:

    In the first Lord of the Rings book, the Fellowship of the Ring, the main characters are all for the same goal until the beginning of the second book, the Two Towers. Then they separate into two groups, each with a different goal. Is this two separate goals or a goal and a subplot?

  5. This really cleared some things up for me. Thanks for tackling this tricky subject.

  6. Oh, wow, that cleared up things. Subplots: smaller (but important) conflicts that come out of what’s already there. Thanks K.M.!

  7. Linda Boberg says:

    Thank you. I worried that I didn’t really HAVE a subplot, but in reading this over and your blog on character arcs, I found out that I do indeed have one. Thanks!

  8. Coyote Jake says:

    I can’t seem to have any luck writing subplot on its own. Similarly to your method, I am only able to write subplot if it evolves naturally as part of the main plot. Most of the time, this doesn’t even happen until I let the story rest a bit. Then it usually reveals itself as a previously unseen resolution to a continuity problem.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Spot on. And, yes, I’m a bit proponent of letting stories rest. Our subconscious creativity needs time to do its thing.

  9. DirectorNoah says:

    Hi Katie,
    That’s a great way to think about subplots. “There are no subplots, only plots.” I never really thought of it like that before. Thank you for that insight! ?
    The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit movies are an excellent example of subplots being seemlessly interwoven into the greater story plot.

    P.S just started reading Dreamlander, very engrossing and looking forward to spotting all your wonderful tips, advice and story structure in practice! ?

  10. Claudio Cesar Chagas says:

    This scene closes a subplot. This is one of the events that drives Leonna to the final action:

    “Leonna enters the ward where the surviving Guardians had placed their dead. In a few hours everyone would be cremated. As usual. Now, however, so many had died that she could not help rethinking her plans. The horrid odor of coagulated blood contaminated the place. The air was vicious and unbreathable. His keen senses made the walk an excruciating torture. As she advances through the room, a tremor runs through her skin. Something beyond the physical. She knows they are already dead, but raising the white cloths that cover the bodies will give her an undeniable certainty. That his plans may fail, that Ciro can overcome and that humanity can be forever condemned. Seeing your dead brothers and sisters makes your fight something more personal. In a way she does not even know how to explain. Some weak and sparse lights are compressed by darkness of the place. All improvised by circumstances.
    Just a look and it would all end, but she is reluctant for a moment. With her fingertips she clutches the corner of one of the sheets. Before lifting it she feels the tears fill her eyes. In revealing the face of the one who lay lifeless she can not stand. With her hand over her mouth she cries compulsively. Barbara’s body inert showed one less piece of the face and the lack of the left arm. Leonna interrupts the movement of covering her deceased sister again. Although the tears continue, she understands that she can not escape reality. It remains only to keep up the struggle so that this death has not been in vain. Barbara, as many here hoped she would not hesitate in the face of adversity. If some did not believe she could be a leader, they at least expected her to be willing to continue to prove she could.”
    *Translated from portuguese

  11. I can hardly believe I have never seen your blog before now. I really appreciate this discussion of subplots. I have been sitting on the release of a book, driving my editor crazy, for the very reason of unmanageable subplots. You have given me hope.

    p.s. I have been using the username Dreamlander since the early days of the internet for just about everything. I was startled when I saw it was the title of one of your books. lol. I have to read it now. Best to you and I will be stopping by again.

  12. Good article,

    I have written one scene of one of my characters sees the someone who died alive and then fainted from shock.

    Have you written this in a story before?

  13. I have never really thought of creating subplots in my story and I was worried I didn’t have any but I suppose now I have a few, they are just really tied into the main plot.

  14. Jeffrey Barlow says:

    In my graphic novel, I’ve managed to make every tier 1 and 2 character (I rank my characters into tiers) have a goal that is some incarnation of the main conflict. Whether they want the same thing, or the opposite thing, or if wanting the same thing puts them into an alliance or a rivalry. Everyone has a different reason, and this effects the interpersonal relationships in so many different ways.

    This is all in one single POV. I can’t imagine how I could possibly fit even one of these other characters’ POVs. Adding any one of these POVs would require a whole extra volume worth of content.

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