Does Your Story Need Subplots?

We’re always hearing about subplots. But what exactly are they? And does your story really need subplots?

In a nutshell, a subplot is just a miniature plot that features a sideline story.

If your story is about an escaped convict who’s trying to prove his innocence, your main plot is going to be his escape, his evasion of capture, and his attempts to find the evidence that will clear his name. Subplots might include his renewed rocky relationship with an old flame or his cover as a Little League coach who becomes a mentor to a young player with a bad family life.

In short, a subplot is something generally unrelated to the thrust of the main plot. It’s something that if you deleted it, the main plot itself would change little, if at all.

So, second question: Do you need subplots?

The short answer is no. Subplots aren’t crucial to your story. In fact, too many subplots or the wrong kind of subplots can easily water down your main plot and theme and end up distracting readers.

However, the longer and more complicated answer is, yes, you do need subplots. And here’s why. Subplots deepen the scope of your story and allow you to explore more facets of both your character and your setting. In our escaped convict example, we’re likely to learn a lot of interesting things about the protagonist through his interactions with both his old flame and the little boy.

The trick is to choose subplots wisely and use them to reinforce pertinent character traits and themes. Without subplots, you’re likely to end up with not only a very short book, but also one that’s one-dimensional. A story needs a tight focus on the primary plot. But if you tighten that focus to the point you exclude every other possible aspect of the character’s life, you’re missing a lot of good stuff. More importantly, you’re missing all kinds of opportunities to let readers get to know the characters better—and, hopefully, sympathize with them and root for them in their overall quest.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How many subplots do you have in your work-in-progress? Tell me in the comments!

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

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. Without subplots, we’re likely to end up with not only a very short book, but also one that’s one dimensional.

    That’s so absolutely true! I’ve just finished a novel that, due to lots of vigorous editing, fell considerably under the desired word count. An agent accepted it suggesting I “did something about the length”. As I hate to overwrite, I introduced a totally new POV character with his own voice and setting and a new plot line (supporting the main two ones, naturally). Amazingly, it made the whole book so much better! His voice, his story and a new setting really added a new dimension to the whole novel. Now I understand that not doing it in the first place was a mistake. The novel is now accepted by a publishing house and I intend to use the same “trick” in my next books. 🙂

  2. I had a similar experience with the historical novel I finished last year. It ended up way under word count, and, upon reflection, I realized that although I had included several prominent subplots, I had failed to flesh them out. I went back, beefed them up, and not only did the word count rise to the expected level, the whole story gained a new depth and resonance.

  3. I usually have at least two in any given novel. While not necessary, subplot add dimension to the story. Adding a different arc to the story lengthens and can add intrigue to an otherwise straight storyline.

  4. Precisely. Couldn’t have said it better myself!

  5. Oh yes. I am adding a sub plot to my WIP right now. It is hard, but necessary. I am fleshing it out now making sure it will help not hinder the main plot.

    Isn’t writing fun?? Lol!

  6. Subplots *are* fun (although, granted, they’re more fun when we stick them in from the start)! The added opportunity to play around with our characters is gravy.

  7. Pacing the subplots against the main plot is very confusing for me. I’m not sure when in the story a subplot should begin, and how much of the story it should take up.

  8. Ultimately, it’s all about what the story *needs.* Each scene should influence the scene that follows. So consider how your main plot leads into your subplot, and how the subplot leads into the main plot.

  9. Good post. There is so much untapped potential in this area of fiction it’s ridiculous.

  10. For my current WIP, I do have a small sub plot. It’s hard to describe it as a subplot though, because its part of the build up towards the main plot. It is a diversion and distraction for the main character. She THINKS this is her main concern, but it isn’t. I think a good sub plot drives the story forward! It’s the stuff along the way that make it worth reading!

  11. @MGalloway: I believe it’s because subplots are so little understood. Many authors have a hard time understanding what a subplot is how to identify the threads within their own stories.

    @Nicole: A good subplot *must* drive the story forward, so what you’re describing is the kind of excellent interweaving of plots that hooks readers and pulls them so far under they can’t ever escape. /evilchuckle

  12. I agree. Subplots don’t have to be there, but they add more flavor to the meat when they are.

  13. Good analogy. A steak would still be a steak without the seasoning. It just wouldn’t taste quite as good.

  14. I’ve found that subplots can sometimes be much more fun to write than the main plot! I guess because there’s so much more to learn through them. In rewriting one project and expanding on hints throughout the story, I was able to learn more about *why* the character did what they did, and overall, I think the story was greatly improved from the first draft.

  15. Subplots are kind of like minor characters: they allow us room to goof off and just have fun experimenting and exploring.

  16. I’ve always struggled with subplots — I focus so much on the story that the subplots don’t even start to get into the story until the revision, and even them, it’s not all that much. What I’ve been doing is separating the subplots from the main story and working just on them. It’s identified some holes large enough to drive a tank through, but it also makes it a lot easier to get what’s needed into the story. To answer your question, I have five subplots.

  17. Sometimes the best way to add subplots is to identify them. More often than not, we have a few lurking about that we didn’t realize were there.

  18. Hi! Okay, so I’m having trouble with understanding subplots. For my horror thriller novel, the main plot is about a young woman who seeks out the help of an paranormal investigation firm to rid herself of the entity that is violently terrorizing the new life she had carefully built. I have only one subplot which are a series of flashbacks of her childhood memories of her grandfather who taught her traditional medicine, songs and even stories of her people and family which lead to the protagonist realizing she needs to stop being afraid of her own gifts and use the knowledge that was passed down from her grandfather whom she didn’t always have a great relationship with. The themes of the book is acceptance and honoring oneself’s faults and strengths.

  19. One of my books has a main storyline told through parallel subplots. The subplots are essential to explain the main storyline.


  1. […] Does Your Story Need Subplots | Helping Writers Become Authors […]

  2. […] Does Your Story Need Subplots | Helping Writers Become Authors […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.