What Are Subplots In A Story? A Definition Of Subplots.

In a previous post I did my best to try to define the Story Arc in terms that we can all understand and agree on. I don’t say this lightly, because even among the professionals, there are different definitions for story, plot and subplot.

A good starting point might be to give a broad definition for each before moving on.

It’s not a fat lot of good talking about these things if the concepts don’t mean the same thing to different people! The whole idea is make things a little clearer in order to make the path to a completed novel easier.

The Definition Of Story Vs Plot –¬†Does Plot Mean Story?

The story is the broadest level of describing a sequence of events, so ‘man loves girl, loses girl, proves himself and wins her back’ represents a very basic story. The fascinating thing is that this story can be applied to many different themes and settings.

The hero can lose and win back the girl if he’s a cowboy or a spaceman far away into the future. It is the components of the story that define it further, which is to say, plot, characters, dialogue and narrative.

When it’s looked at in this way, it becomes obvious that the plot isn’t the same as story, but is a sub-category of it. Our story needs characters which are involved in events. The actions that the characters take in these situations is the plot. Just as there could be two or more story lines that run parallel and intertwine, so will there be subplots within them. These subsets are crafted by the author to augment the main story line and reinforce the overall story message, or them, that he’s trying to convey.

Writing Subplots – The Multi-dimensional Novel

planning - what are subplotsDefining your main story arc is one of the first vital steps in planning your novel, but care should be taken with the smaller stories within it, and their subplots.

These subsets are no less important as they add depth to the main story, enhancing it and giving it a depth and interest that gives the reader a much more satisfying experience.

That said, the author needs to be clear about plot/subplot hierarchy, ensuring that the subplots don’t overpower the main one of dilute the overall theme.

Subplots Need Planning Too – Make An Outline

It’s a great idea to build a database, or even a basic table, so that you can clearly see how any subplots slot into the broader framework of your novel.

For example, for some novels, there may be some chapters where they aren’t referenced at all, because they have no impact of the subject or event being covered. Often, a subplot re-appears just when necessary to drive the story in another direction, or give solutions that help the hero to overcome obstacles.

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If you have just one subplot, then it would be fairly easy to run it alongside and in parallel with the plot. With several, it’s probably best to arrange the story line so that there are periods when they are not referred to at all. Don’t Worry – the reader knows they’re there!

Author Nicholas Sparks talks about writing:


Video Transcript:

“Hi – I’m Nicholas Sparks. I’m the author of The Notebook, Walk to Remember, Message in a Bottle, Dear John, and most recently, See Me.

I grew up loving a great story so it was always in my mind that I wanted to become a writer and yet I never really had the belief that I could become a writer in the sense that I could pay my bills.

When I was 28, then I’d had a couple of novels under my belt and it hit me that it was time to chase a dream so I work from 9:00 to midnight four or five days a week maybe a few hours on the weekend and the notebook was finished in about six months.

Inspiration can come from anywhere including my my own life. Message in a Bottle was inspired by my father after the death of my mother. A Walk to Remember was this story inspired by my sister, so you pulled bits and pieces from people that you know.

For the most part it takes a couple of months to conceive of a story. I start with a small inspiration, that can either be a theme or an event in my past, and little by little I stack the ideas until I reach the point where I’m fairly clear on what I want the novel to be.

The writing process, it usually is about six months long. It’s an average of four days a week and when I sit down to write. I write 2,000 words and that can take anywhere from four to seven hours.

See me is most similar to Safe-Haven or The Guardian, in that it really explores the theme of love and danger. For See Me, I wanted a different kind of suspense and tension that builds toward the end and so it’s a very twisty mystery thriller. With that said of course, See Mes is also a love story.

It is in the end two stories in one. It’s a film that of course I love and it’s a film that has become regarded as a modern classic. I guess it’s because everything about that film work Nick Cassavetes had an amazing view of what he wanted the film to be and course Nick was the director and then you had amazing performances.

It was a story that had both an epic quality but captured the intimacy of that young passionate love. If you want to be a writer you have to be willing to put up with the challenges of being a writer. The uncertainty the writer’s block, the sleepless nights, that loneliness, the ability to work in silence, the ability to give up time in the real world for time in a fantasy world.

I want to enthral, I want to have a story that’s interesting and original, a story that’s memorable and I want those stories to include characters that strike the reader as authentic and honest.”

An interview with author Nicholas Sparks Video Transcript (PDF Download)

The Story Has To Flow

How to write subplotsUsing any kind of template or outline planning tool is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s very useful for guidance in planning the chronology of events and how subplots intertwine and relate to the main plot.

However, the devices that authors refer to when discussing novel structure must be completely invisible to the reader, whose focus should be ‘what happens next?’

The plot and subplots are much more than a string of events arranged for the author’s convenience, but have to be subtly interwoven and crafted to provide a seamless reading experience that satisfies on a deeply emotional level, if the novel is to be runaway success.


Conflict, Tension and Answers To Important Questions

Approach the story line in terms of problems and solutions, where answering the questions posed drives the novel forward towards the end of the quest. The cumulative effect of these answers is the real message of the novel, it’s the theme. At the beginning you ask a large question, such as ‘is modern life too complex to be happy’, and the ending delivers the answer.

The whole premise of a novel in the first place is to see how other people, even fictitious ones, answer life’s challenges in a meaningful way that we can relate to in a human sense. The character’s actions and motivations become our own, if the author has crafted the story well. We become immersed in the world of the novel and identify with emotions and difficulties portrayed.

Who Inhabits Subplots? The Characters

subplot characters

A subplot may impact the story in a variety of ways, and the ‘support’ characters will necessarily have some sort of relationship with the hero or villain. Support characters normally don’t have the depth of main characters and tend not to undergo change throughout the novel (Character Arc).

However, in the case of a novel with two partner-heroes, a subplot revolving around one of the characters can serve to make the overall them more real and complex. After all, real life situations are complex.

If a subplot is intended to derive an obstacle or challenge to the hero, then the characters can be two-dimensional and, by definition, they don’t need to undergo changes to perform their role.

Subplots - Main and Support CharactersHow To Introduce Subplots Into Your Novel

Many novels have a powerful subplot that runs parallel to the plot. They are separate and written from a different perspective. For example, imagine two men trying to climb a mountain from opposite sides, each one overcoming different challenges in different ways.

The narrative would shift from one to the other as they struggle to be the first one to the top. The subplots might come together at the summit, when the two meet. A similar method could be used for a criminal being chased by a cop, as in the movie ‘Catch Me If You Can‘.

Another common story trick is to show how various people from different walks of life pass through their own subplots before a common element brings them together in a surprise ending.

Take the time to explore how subplots can be woven together to fill out a story line, adding complexity – you’ll find that your novel is all the better for it.


Plot and Subplots: Creative Fiction Writing


Video Transcript:

You have the main plot of your story and in most plots basically you have the setup. You have forces in the plot that play out and a conclusion at the end and you want the conclusion to be satisfying to the viewer, to either resolve something change the status quo.

You want all the characters in the story to be an integral part of the plot. You want part of their personalities make them, give reasons to why they’re there and why they’re playing a part. But you don’t want the world that your story depicts to be one or two dimensional.

You want it to have real depth and so you want to give a feeling that it isn’t just the plot that is being played out. You don’t want to have the feeling like nothing was really happening before your story began.

As your characters enter the story, they’re already in the middle of their lives and they already have things going on. Things they need to do and the story itself. The real origins of the story – it’s a good idea to have them start way before the story ever begins.

And even though you’re not going to tell a lot of the very beginning of the story, when you bring your reader into the story, the things that are going on, they’re already happening. Some things have already happened but in the beginning the viewer gets oriented to what is already going on and thrown into the mix when it’s already happening.

And then they can follow it to to the climax, or logical conclusion of the main plot. Now one of the best ways to add depth to the story, you don’t want characters just to be automatons, following through the plot.

You want them to have real lives. You want them to have their own lives, things that are going on and the subplot is really good for this. So you have the main plot and on a piece of paper, outside of the story you’re writing, you’ve done a basic map of what happens in the plot.

It’s really clear in your mind and then what you can do is you can go and find the subplots. A really good way to start looking for them is to look at the two characters that are the most featured in the story. Are there things that happen between them? Do they have a relationship?

A relationship is always changing, so what is the story of the change in that relationship – that is usually a subplot. If you can find this for every character that’s in the story, they’re usually subplots about the relationships between those characters.

If their relationship is different than what it was when the story began, and you have the main plot happening and then you have these subplots happening right along with it. Soo you have this inner woven, all these different plots going on.

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The viewer is most likely paying attention to the main plot, but is also interested in the subplots and it’s really helpful to to write a more effective story if you’re really clear about all the subplots that are going.

You can use subplots to make your characters more three-dimensional because if they’re thinking that they need to fix the boat from sinking, but they’re also negating a divorce, then that’s a lot more about what real life is like.

It’s going to be a lot more convincing and it’s easier to time and and work with each plot separately to write more effectively. You can you can map out the main plot and then you can map out each subplot.

On another piece of paper think about each plot separately, outside of the story, then you can make more effective decisions about what happens in it. You can be clear about what is the set up of each plot. What are the forces that play out in that separate subplot and what is the conclusion or resolution, transformation and what whatever type of climax that particular plot has.

The thing about developing three-dimensional characters and a convincing world for your your viewer to inhabit, is about working with these complexities. Creating a three-dimensional character is not just about knowing what school they went to, what their parents were like, what their what their class background or financial about.

It’s good to think about those things but to create a really convincing three-dimensional character, have them living their own lives. They’re also living to fulfill your plot. They’re also doing the things that need to be done to push that plot forward but write them so that they’re living their own lives.

They have their own objectives. They have their own dreams they have their own ambitions, their own needs. They’re just trying to be for themselves and what they’re doing and everything that pushes the plot to its conclusion is the dynamics that will create very convincing characters.

Again, working with your story outside of just writing it. If you can, have a piece of paper and draw lines marking out when and in the story certain important things happen with each plot.

When exactly the conclusion happens. What is the transformation at the beginning of each plot? What is the status quo and at the end what has changed? How is it how are things no longer what they were before?