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?

28 Replies to “What Are Subplots In A Story? A Definition Of Subplots.”

  1. Stefanie Williams says:

    Great post. I always appreciate when answers to questions are resolved at the end of a novel. If not, an otherwise remarkable book, or even tv show, can end up a major disappointment in my opinion. ‘Lost’ is one example that comes to mind right off the bat. Also, you hit the nail on the head about how important the deep emotional connection is to the success of a novel. That’s so important! Do you have any suggestions for creating characters/story lines you can’t help, but have an emotional attachment to?

    1. The emotional connection is crucial IMO. We have to really care about the hero and want to know what happens to him or her, that’s what keep us turning those pages. It also helps if we can relate to their problems, so we can identify the same character traits in ourselves.

      I’m a movie fanatic and write scripts as well. Blake Snyder wrote a book about movie structure and addressed the way a scriptwriter cements this emotional attachment. During the story setup, a ‘Save The Cat’ moment is devised. This is when the hero see someone or something needing help, and does the necessary with no other motive but kindness. Voila! The audience like them immediately and care about what happens to them. We can do the same thing when writing a novel – just one of the many tricks available to the thinking author. Thanks for your comment and question.

  2. I am a book addict, so I appreciate this.
    I’ve been heavily into fiction for the past two years and I’m totally…completely…HOOKED!
    I love a good book – so your post about subplots hits home for me.
    I’ve found that a good story does have subplots and they expand the plot itself. They add character and personality to the characters themselves and drive the plot in a few different directions throughout. As we know in life, our personal stories often have detours and rarely (if ever) follow a straight line. So for me, it’s similar with fiction.
    I love what you said about an author giving focus to the emotional and complex components to the story and characters. I’m a huge Catherine Ryan-Hyde fan and in her work, you discover why the characters are the way they are, what makes them do the things they do and you get a sense of the human condition in and of itself.
    I think you can learn a lot about the human condition in a good story, and the subplots certainly help with this.

    1. Yes, if I think back about my favorite books, it’s the layers and various levels of interest that makes them truly entertaining. I don’t want to get lost in subplots, but they do give a sense of realism – real life is almost completely subplots, I find!

  3. Subplots enrich stories into novels, but like any aspect of writing, must be planned out incredibly carefully or, in any text, they run the risk of overtaking the main plot of the story.

  4. Really liked this article Jim, I can now truly say I understand much better how to write and sub-plot and why!
    This feels like a Novel Writing university =)
    With gratitude – Orion

    1. Thanks for the nice comment and encouragement. The site is designed to answer such question as What are subplots, because these are exactly the kind of Qs I had when I first started. Originally, I thought that my questions were stupid, but I now know that even seasoned writers have some confusion over terms – it’s best to ask, and if I can help, then great!

  5. Terry Campbell says:

    Thanks – Iv’ got a better understanding about what subplots are, but there’s a lot of questions in my mind. Can an author have any number of subplots in a novel? I suppose that subplots should be of lesser importance than the main plot, and that the story arc will only encompass the main plot, and not the lesser plots. So do these subplots all have their own story arcs?

    1. I reckon it’s a fine line. On the one hand, subplots make the novel more complex and done within reason, it adds interest to the story, particularly if they impact the final result significantly (and they should!) However, if there are too many, or takes up too much reader thinking time, then it they can detract from the main plot to the detriment of the overall story.

    2. Poppy Ledbetter says:

      I share you confusion a bit there Terry; on the one hand, I can see how they can help to ‘flesh out’ a novel, but what are subplots over and above that? i’ve often read books (well, not too often!) that have such a strong subplot that it’s almost as powerful as the main plot, so that basically there are two main stories running side by side, neither one more important than the other.

      This could be super good if the two plots intertwined and came to a conclusion at the same, indeed, the conclusions of the story arcs must intimately depend on each other;

      1. Hi Poppy – it strikes me that a story without a subplot would be a poor thing indeed. Yet, here again, it can always be overdone. Th trick is the story arc. What does it call for? How does the character arc develop? Does it depend on events to evolve, or is it impacted significantly by other characters? All these questions (and more!), the author needs to ask before contemplating subplots.

  6. General Peacemaker says:

    Not sure if it’s the same thing as subplots but I love those kind of novels with multiple stories running through them, like the movie (was it a book first?) Love, Actually. There were six or seven plots with different character arcs and various outcomes. Several of the characters were linked in certain ways and the outcome was brilliant, very satisfying. the theme was ‘love is all you need’, like the Beatles said; i cant’ say this movie had a main plot at all, juts loads of subplots – or was it loads of main plots?

    1. You raise a good point. I know the movie and, as far as I’m concerned, the idea of subplots and all the other elements of planning a story apply to novels as well as movies. As for ‘Love Actually’, it seems to me that they are parallel main plots.

  7. Guillaume Ferrier says:

    Here’s my take in this – all this talk about planning and structure me gonfle, vraiment. Where is the spontaneity, the creativity that happens when the consciousness is free to roam.? Writing as a stream of consciousness is THE way to write, that’s when all the good stuff comes out. It can be sorted out later, in the first editing phase, surely?

    Don’t believe that creative writing begins with plots and subplots. As far as character arcs go, it strikes me that it’s a little like any human being growing up, but compressed into a novel format, so that it’s more digestible;

    1. Understand perfectly where you’re coming from, but I’m absolutely sure that planning to a template or structure is indispensable for a new author. How can you have a story without plots and subplots? of course, they have to be planned – not sure how you would structure anything without thinking it out first, whether it’s a novel or a new building! You wouldn’t start a painting or building a house without a firm idea of where all the various parts are going to inter-relate, would you?

  8. Gareth Foster says:

    My initial reaction was that What Are Subplots is a bloody stupid question. It’s obvious. After a while, I researched some more and found there was much, much more to the subject of plots and subplots than I had originally thought. The balance between plot and subplots needs to be pretty subtle, if the’re not going to overpower the main story. Also, there should only be one or two AND in addition, the type and style of the subplot can greatly enhance the story. Choose the wrong one (or even involving the wrong characters) and they serve to distract, spoiling the flow. Nice article, by the way. 🙂 I’m off to analyze some old favorites, like John Grisham, to see how they handle subplots – or does he? I’ve no idea.

    1. Looking back at some Grisham novels, the subplots are woven carefully and really do enhance the story, making it more real; just like real life, in fact. We’ve all got a quest in life, sometimes short-term or long, such as building a great career. While we focus on that main ‘plot’, there are other things in our lives, and that of close friends, that are all going on at the sale time – these are are our very own and very real subplots. If real life has them, makes sense that a novel should.

  9. Fannie May Carrier says:

    Not sure if I’ve got this right – If a hero has got toothache and has to go the dentist, is this what a subplot is? Maybe that’s too anecdotal, or whatever the expression is. It might not be too much of a side story but it does represent something going on besides the main plot, so it could work? Can you give any guidance on how many subplots to add to a novel, and how it’s done practically?

    1. You’re right – maybe a dentist’s visit is a bit too slight to be considered a subplot. However, if there was some kind of relationship with the dentist and the hero’s wife, then you might have something. The suspects – his marriage isn’t that good and his wife goes to the handsome dentist far more than is normal. there you have the makings for a story running alongside the main plot, and wouldn’t be too distracting. You can’t have too many subplots though – the novel would seem like a hotch-potch of parallel stories. the main focus should clearly be the main plot, while lesser stories should be well-crafted to enhance the main one.

  10. Pers Anderson says:

    Love subplots. they make a story more real, for my money. I recently read a book with too many subplots that just got in the way. They were too complex, overpowered the main plot and didn’t drive it forward; they were an unwelcome distraction and didn’t add to the main character’s journey.

    1. Yes, it’s a subtle thing, balancing plots against subplots. They make the characters more believable and round out the story, which should enhance the reader’s understanding and enjoyment.

  11. Ben James says:

    Hi – does Watson, Sherlock’s partner, have a subplot attached to him. Havn’t read Conan Doyle for years, but for the life of me can’t remember if there’s any indication of a separate life for Dr Watson. He was always used a sounding board, and to get plot info over to the readers, as a foil for Holme’s brilliance, but did he have a life of his own, as far as the novels go?

    1. Yes, indeed, he had a backstory, as all 3 dimensional characters should have. His military career is well-covered in Doyle’s books, but doesn’t mention his family life much. as for contemporary issues affecting his work with Sherlock Holmes, I can’t say.

  12. Harry Creton says:

    Are subplots necessary in all genres of fiction? Maybe they just don’t register with me, when I read a novel. I suppose they’re always there, and that’s testimony to the author’s craft. They are invisible, blending into the story and giving it substance. I think this is a hard thing to do properly. If you sit down and think ‘I must have some subplots in the story, to make it more real’ then it’s not gonna work IMO. However, if you really, really know your character and treat him like a real person, you can give him real problems that bug us all, over and above his main problem (the main plot).

    1. Hi Harry – good comments. Yes, subplots in a novel is one of those golden rules that applies to any genre and any theme.

  13. Ben Peters says:

    What about a book like the Jason Bourne trilogy? I’m trying to think of subplots here – what are the subplots in those stories. Each time I think of one, it’s so wound up with the main plot, it doesn’t seem to be a different plot at all.

    Anyway, I like this site. the explanations are clear and you grapple with the basics. Well done.

  14. So a subplot is just like another story? Could you have any number of subplots, or would that be too much? I read a book by a Portuguese guy once, and he had two characters, each with a different story, but both joining together in one quest. Thing is, I became much more interested in one of the subplots than the main plot. I guess this was a failing on the part of the author writing the story.

    1. Yes, that happens. It’s a subtle thing, but sometimes we like or identify with a character and are more interested in what happens to them. Once again, it’s generally a mistake to have too many subplots – they get in the way. They are supposed to bring realism without overpowering the main story.

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