Use This Subplot to Bring Depth to Plot-Driven Stories

Subplots are surprisingly misunderstood. Primarily, this is because the best subplots are always natural offshoots of the plot itself. They’re so integral to the plot that they’re basically inextricable from it.

Let me start with a basic definition of the subplot: The subplot is a thematically related exploration of a minor part of the protagonist’s world or  personality.

As such, subplots are vital for providing both contrast within the plot—for example, they give readers a “break” from the main plot—and for introducing character depth via situations that would be off-limits in the main part of the plot.

>>Click here for “5 Tips for Organizing Subplots”

We find perhaps the most obvious example of this in action-driven stories, since the contrast is particularly evident. For example, in C.S. Forester’s acclaimed Hornblower series, the plot is very obviously about the action—it’s about  Hornblower’s naval adventures during the Napoleonic Wars. Forester could easily have left his stories at that, and they probably would still have been popular. But he notched it up by introducing a minor subplot about Hornblower’s domestic life—his somewhat accidental marriage, his struggles to relate emotionally to his wife, and his desire to provide for his family.

I like to call this an “emotional subplot.” It’s not there to drive the plot forward so much as it is to introduce humanizing facets of the character. It makes the protagonist relatable and compelling in ways readers wouldn’t be able to access if the author focused totally on the main plot. Some stories, of course, are all about the emotional angle. But if you’re writing a plot-driven story, take a minute to contemplate how you can bring considerable depth to your story by expending just a little extra effort on an emotional subplot.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Does your story have an emotional subplot? 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. As a matter of fact I do have an emotional subplot! Without it, my mc wouldn’t be where she is.

  2. I have what I’d like to call branch offs of the same plot. I use subplots to reveal certain perspectives about certain customs in the setting, using how each one feels about it to create depth.

  3. Lots of them. I usually think of subplots as relating to minor characters, but they weave back into the main storyline and spark sub-plots (by your definition) off the MC.

  4. If I’m understanding your definition — and I very easily might not — then I have four subplots, one for each of my central characters: the main plot is about their fight against the bad guy and his effects; but one man also feels under-valued, another that he was forced to grow up too fast, the third is trying to absolve himself of former sins, and the fourth is trying to reconcile her use of magic and the bad guy’s use of magic.

  5. @mshatch: They’re fun to write, aren’t they? Never know what you’re going to discover about your character.

    @JustSarah: The reactions of multiple characters to similar thematic elements is a great way to layer depth into the story by presenting different viewpoints of the same subject.

    @Lauren: Subplots are often about minor characters, but they don’t *have* to be. Many subplots belong entirely to the MC.

    @Daniel: What you’re describing *could* very well be subplots, depending on how you treat them. But they also sound like each character’s primary quest to discover his greatest need – and thus fulfill his character arc.

  6. I definitely have an emotional subplot in my latest book “Deserto rosso” (“Red Desert”). While the story is about the colonization of Mars and the problems the protagonist (and the rest of the crew) encounters during the mission, she has to face a lot of emotional stuff as well.
    For instance she is quite intolerant against men from Middle East as her father is from that part of the world and abandoned her mother when she was pregnant. Her mother kinda brianwashed her about this kind of men. And now she founds herself having to share the rest of her life in a desert planet with other four people, and one of them is of that kind… oops!
    That would force her to face her fears and cause a growing in the character, which will bring to an acceptance of her origins and even to like them.
    But that’s just a subplot, the whole story is about a menace for human kind hidden in Mars!

  7. Great title! And a great example of an effective emotional subplot.

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  9. Thanks for this one, K.M.!

  10. Glad you enjoyed it!

  11. I’ve always found subplots to be hard for me to implement, though I have been successful once or twice..
    My latest story has no DISTINCT subplot, though, thinking it over.. I realize I have put just a tiny bit of a subplot… guy who’s always been weak as a kid, tries to prove that he can hold his own.
    Actual plot is a plan of revenge on the death of his father.

    Honestly… I haven’t worked anything on that story for a while.
    I’m currently engaged in creating a thorough background.. history, technology, traditions, relations… for another sci-fi story (and I don’t even have a plot for it yet. :eyeroll:). Not technically considered story-writing, ‘cuz this is dull stuff.. like you’d find in a history book.. 😉

  12. World building is never dull! I consider all prep work as a part of the writing process – so it definitely counts.

  13. Yes, my new story has an emotional subplot and it is adding so much depth to the story. It’s actually gluing the story together. Every page there is a few words on the subplot, and I hope the reader will stick with the book for many reasons, but the subplot will make them want to keep reading.

    I have not figured out if I am going to resolve the subplot or let it hang, and that’s the beauty of a subplot, it’s not the main plot so you can resolve them or not.

    Another great suggestion from you. I’ve said it before but I am amazed at how often something you are focusing on comes up in my writing, at the same time. Spooky. Thanks KM.

  14. In many ways, emotional subplots *are* the glue. Whether they’re the driving force of the plot or not, they’re often the thing that makes it matter. Hornblower’s stories could have happened without his emotional subplot, but his adventures at sea wouldn’t have held nearly as much meaning without the context of his domestic life on shore.

  15. Oh yes! In my thriller for middle graders, the subplot centers on th MC ‘s dad finding love. This will fulfilled the MC’s desire for a family again.

    Subplots are so important as long as they connect to the main plot!

  16. @ K.M. Weiland
    You’re right, world-building is not dull… to me.
    I was thinking about if other people were reading what I’ve been working on. 😉

  17. @Ruth: The strongest subplots are always all about reinforcing the main thrust of the plot and theme. If they fail to do that, then they become so much dead weight.

    @Gideon: Yes, but just think how riveted your readers will be when you translate those fascinating details into your story!

  18. Several of my characters, in addition to my MC, have subplots. My challenge is to show these while writing in first person. The fact that they merge with the heroine’s story helps.

    Question for you. Should the subplots be mentioned while pitching your story, or sending your proposal to agents and editors? Or should they be saved for discovery later?

  19. Subplots would be mentioned in your synopsis, but probably not in your query, since you have to cram only the most important details into just a few sentences.

  20. My current WIP definitely has an emotional subplot – a romance one, no less. But the romance is tricky, with a male character in a setting where he is surrounded by females, but with enormous emotional baggage from how women (particularly his mother) have treated him in the past. It’s a great way to explore issues of trust and emotional distancing with the main character without divorcing ourselves too much from the main plot, since it involves heated engagements with primary characters in the main plot anyway.

    As a younger reader, I had issues with subplots since often I found them to be distractions and essentially padding, drawing out the word count of a story to make it a viable novel without adding much depth to the primary story. As ever, it annoyed me to see this flaw frequently got to the publishing stage, and I went through a bit of a phase thinking that subplots were simply a crutch for weak stories. Having been exposed to much better renditions, though, I have come to understand their enormous value and how entertaining and rewarding it can be to watch the subplot threads tie together as a story reaches its climax.

  21. The best subplots are so integral they’re unnoticeable within the framework of the overall plot. Readers shouldn’t be able to say, “Whoops, there’s a subplot!” It has to all flow together.

  22. Thanks for the post! 😀 I love emotional subplots myself, but for some reason I´m always dreading it could be boring for my readers :O

  23. I have the same tendency. I have to stop and remind myself that if I’m writing for a reader like me, then, hey, that reader loves emotional subplots!

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