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How to Keep the Wrong Subplots From Sinking Your Story

wrong subplotsSubplots are vital for many reasons. They can deepen your story’s plot and theme. They can provide contrast and resonance for the main plot. And they can give your characters and their world a feeling of verisimilitude. The wrong subplots, however, can water down your plot with parenthetical information.

Writers must realize not every moment in a character’s life needs to be explained. Sometimes readers are better off knowing something happened, without the author digressing into the nitty-gritty details.

For example, the movie Like Dandelion Dust is about the custody struggle between a young boy’s biological and adopted parents. A key point in the movie is that the boy’s biological grandmother forged his convict father’s signature on the adoption papers. This step forces the parents to lie to a judge about the signature so they can avoid being prosecuted for it.

At first glance, this is such a crucial bit of information that it would seem necessary to show the characters fretting about it, discussing it with their lawyer, and coming up with their alibi.

However, because the criminality of the forged signature was not the crux of the story and because spending too much time on the characters’ worrying about being prosecuted for it would have detracted from the story’s main thrust, the filmmakers decided to bypass all that and cut directly to the chase.

When the characters deliver their alibi to the judge, they also give viewers all the necessary information. The story stays on target with its main focus—the characters’ emotional struggles—without dragging readers into an unnecessary and dilutive series of scenes.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever been tempted to include wrong subplots? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. excellent post! great thing to keep in mind while writing–esp. while editing! <3

  2. Sometimes it’s hard to tell while writing the first draft if a subplot is digressive. Often, it’s better just to write ’em, and then go back and analyze while revising.

  3. I seem to be more aware of this in stories other than mine that’s why I find my critiquing partners so helpful. It’s hard to know what the reader gets and doesn’t and wants more of without an honest, open-minded reading partner.

    Love this post!

  4. I think we all have the tendency to be more aware of the faults in stories other than our own. We love *all* the scenes, subplots, and characters in our stories, so we have a difficult time realizing that readers won’t find them all pertinent.

  5. Actually, kind of the opposite. My subplot became the novel. It was so easy to write and I was more invested in it. I’d spent so long getting stuck with the novel, I sat down and really thought about what the problem was – and it turned out to be my original plot and lead character.

  6. I’ve had that happen before too. It’s always a little scary and more than a little thrilling when the story takes over in ways you never expected.

  7. Yes I have. Thankfully, when it was time to trim my whopping word count, I realized those excessive subplot details had to go.
    You used a perfect example. I just watched that movie a few nights ago.
    Great post!

  8. Right now, my WIP could actually *use* a few extra subplots. Want to share your castoffs with me? 😉

  9. The non-necessary sub-plots don’t really show their heads but trying to keep them organized is certainly a challenge.

  10. It’s crazy how incoherent our first drafts can sometimes. Thank God for: edit, edit, edit!

  11. I really enjoy your post. Maybe it’s because I can listen as well as read it? No, it’s because they are very informative. The videos are an added plus.

  12. Glad you’re enjoying them! Diversifying media is a pet project of mine.

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