Making Subplots Necessary

Subplots are, at best, distractions.

That’s a good thing.  When your main plot is moving slowly, or has to wait for something to happen, a subplot can come in and keep people interested.  Or, when something awful is happening and you don’t want the reader to put down the book because it’s too intense, a subplot can be just the thing to gloss it over and help bring the reader through.  In short, subplots are great when you need to distract.

But subplots can’t just spring from nowhere.  If you only acknowledge the existence of subplots for the few moments when you need to distract from the main plot, it’s going to feel contrived.  The subplots must be there already, available to be used for your purposes… but they’re still distracting.  Subplots aren’t as important as the main plot— that’s why they’re called subplots.

Does that mean you’re allowed to ignore all subplots and only go with one plot line for the entire story?  No.  It’s said that characters interact in pairs— there’s a different relationship between each set of characters in your cast.  That’s a subplot for each pair, really.  Not only that, but we’ve seen before that subplots can cloud a mystery or prolong a romance.  Subplots have many uses, from pacing to developing character.  They’re useful, naturally.  But they’re still distracting.

At this point, it seems like subplots are more trouble than they’re worth— putting them in means distraction, leaving them out means less to work with in terms of plot.  There’s no way to win… is there?

Of course there is.  Think about it.  Distractions are all alike; red herrings, jokes, and promises are all distractions.  Even important things can seem like distractions.  There’s an easy way to deal with those distractions, no matter what size, and it works on subplots just as well.

Make them necessary.

Easy— but not so easy.  It’s a big job, of course.

The first step is to make it pay off.  Whatever the subplot is, make sure it has a resolution that links to the main plot.  If it’s an ongoing argument between two characters, make sure those two characters make up and work together to resolve the main plot.  If it’s a trail of red herrings, clouding the waters of a mystery, make sure that smaller mystery is solved first, so the water is clear enough to see the truth.  When you complete this first step, it almost doesn’t matter if you finish the job of making this subplot necessary; when you make sure the subplot pays off its own promises, it pays for its distraction.

That first step is enough to make you not fail.  It’s not enough to make you an expert, but it’s enough to keep you afloat.

Please don’t stop there.  Too many writers, including me, have stopped there because they don’t have the time, or they don’t know enough, to make it any better.  Don’t stop there.  Just treating subplots this much differently will bring you from mediocre to amazing.

So, what else is there to do?  The second step is a little harder than making the subplot pay off; making it necessary earlier in the story.

This can be done in several different ways, depending on the subplot.  Whatever the subplot adds to the story, make sure it adds it throughout the story as well as at the end.  If the subplot adds humor, make sure it’s adding humor where humor is desperately needed, and never where it’s useless.  If it adds conflict between characters, make sure that conflict never disappears without explanation.  Whatever it adds, make sure it adds it.

This will require a little bit of thought, but it will accentuate the main plot more than it distracts.  Combined with the payoff that comes at the end, it will feel almost completely necessary… but not completely.

The last thing to do is a micro-edit thing: make it smooth.  Don’t make it obvious how much the subplot is necessary.  Don’t make it obvious when your gears shift from main plot to subplot.  Don’t make it obvious how much you’re tiptoeing around to keep from being distracting, because that’s more distracting than any subplot you can think up.  Instead, bury the subplot.  Even though you’ve worked on it, even though it’s necessary, even though you want the world to know it’s not distracting, bury it.  Make conversations and thoughts flow from one topic to another.  It’s going to be difficult, but that’s exactly why mediocre writers leave their subplots at the first step.

It gratifies the audience to realize that something they noticed at the beginning of the story has a part to play at the end.  But it gratifies a reader more to realize that something they didn’t notice at the beginning has a part to play at the end.  That’s where the best surprises come from, and where the best writers show their worth.  Anyone can make a distracting thing pay itself off, but it takes skill to pull a payoff from nothing.


36 thoughts on “Making Subplots Necessary

  1. Excellent post. This makes a lot of sense. I’m trying to think up a good example of something I’ve read recently… Okay, this may not be a great example, but Noah from The Raven Boys. His general neatness, lack of eating, etc, were all buried “clues” to the truth. Or maybe a better example would be the romance in Mistborn where we got to see Vin and Elend together a few times before Elend takes becomes the new monarch.

    Subject change, but This reminds me of a conversation I was having with my dad the other day about character quirks vs. Character subplots. My conclusion was a subplot has “motion” whereas a quirk does not. For example, if one character bit her nails, it would be a quirk if that was all there was to it–she just bit her nails as a bad habit. But, if she was actively trying to stop biting her nails and that got involved in the book’s resolution, it would be a subplot.
    Now that I type this out it seems way more obvious than it did when I was talking with dad…anyway, I was curious to see what you thought of this.

    1. Indeed. Noah is a very good example of this, I think. Ties into the plot nicely, and has a lot of character to it as well. I loved that reveal.

      I think that’s correct, and it might also meld into the subject of character flaws and such. There are some things that just won’t change during the story (my favorite example is Tony Stark being full of himself), but there are some things that must in order for the character to develop (his attitude toward arms dealing). I don’t know if you’ve seen Iron Man, but that’s how I think of it.

      Another thing that not many people notice is how motion gets noticed and static things don’t. A person biting her nails is not going to be noticed for the nail-biting— she’ll be noticed because she’s the main character, or the love interest, or based on her dynamic (active) role through the story. A character who just exists as anything, be it the love interest or the one friend who always agrees, is not noticed because she’s static, not dynamic. This is one thing that really bugged me about Rick Riordan before the House of Hades release: he said “This is the book for fans of Percabeth.” That wasn’t true, because their relationship was static, not dynamic. It didn’t change, it didn’t strengthen— it just was.

      Okay, I’ll get off my soap box now. Thoughts?

      1. Good point about flaws. And yes, I have seen Iron Man, and that example makes sense.

        I don’t entirely agree with the idea that static things don’t get noticed, in that I think there can be exceptions, but that’s an interesting point.
        Exceptions: Quirky side characters who have a defining trait. For example, the baker who always sings. The reader might notice a singing baker more than a baker who just bakes.
        But, interesting point about Percabeth’s relationship not developing in HoH. It would have been nice if that had gone somewhere. (Especially since they were literally going through h***. I mean, talk about a perfect opportunity to find kinks in a relationship.) The only real motion there was was that Percy was getting more serious about their relationship, but he never acted on those thoughts. He just kept fighting monsters and nearly dying. There was enough of a “I wuv Annabeth and Annabeth wuvs me” feel to satisfy the hopeless romantics in the audience, but nothing to really capture interest.

        *Hops off soapbox and kicks it back to you.*

      2. Excellent.

        Agreed. A very strange thing grabs attention, but it doesn’t leave as much of an impression as something that moves.

        I know. That book almost killed me with how clueless Riordan seemed to be— here’s hoping Blood of Olympus is better (but considering the initials spell BOO, I don’t have much hope).

      3. *Crosses fingers.* I am looking forward to seeing how he wraps it all up. My sister and I have talked countless times about who we think might/will die. I really hope the end is good.

  2. Agreed completely.

    …And that may be all I have to say. Um…

    *three or four ancient blog posts that are “trending” later*

    …Nope. Still got nothing. I have nothing to start an argument with. I like subplots. I’m really just scraping the bottom of the barrel here.

    *reads post again*

    Okay! I’ve got it.

    Not that spectacular of a thought, but I probably needed this post. I’ve got the main plot, main/sub plot #2 (it varies– I thought it was main, but it may just be sub), and then quite a few subplots varying in prominence. This story is getting big…

    Anyway. Good post.

  3. Oooh! Interesting…

    I don’t think I’ve ever really done much with subplots before (at least, not anything intentional), but I’ll keep this in mind. (And…I’ve been interrupted like three times while trying to write this comment, so I don’t even remember what I was going to say anymore…)

    Anyway, good post.

  4. Subplots. Cool. Let’s echo Lily and say “excellent post” because it really was. Clear, concise, and useful.

    Subpots are something I’ve worked on lately, out of necessity. Most of my subplots develop out of thin air, honestly. Like the random character I added that turned into the MC’s cousin and a pretty major part of the plot. Oops.

    I could use some work with “weaving” the subplots in, though, especially planting the seeds for them earlier in the story.

    1. Thanks. I’m glad it worked so well.

      So you pants your subplots. Good to know.

      Indeed. I have a post coming up soon that will deal with that a little bit— at least, weaving them in via brainstorming and things like that. It might be repetitive of this post, but I think it’ll help.

      1. Uh-oh…if this is good to know for anyone other than myself or my editor someday, I’m suspicious.

        I don’t care if it’s repetitive in some points. I think it’ll be helpful all the same.

      2. I meant more of the “I have to actually think it’s good because I said I was sure it would be,” but okay.

        …You earned it.

      3. *sighs* Okay…

        I said I didn’t care if it was repetitive; I was sure it’d still be helpful. You said thanks, and I instructed you to be sure to write a good post now so as to be in accordance with my statement. You said you’d already written it, and then I explained I meant more along the lines of “write a good post so I can confirm my statement.” And then I simply affirmed you did so. Make sense now?

        …I need to work on this clarity thing, I suppose.

      4. All right, Head Phil. This better be worth it. Took me a while.

        Dije que no me importaba si era repetitivo; estaba seguro de que todavía estaría útil. Usted dijo que gracias, y me dijiste que estés segura de escribir un buen puesto ahora por lo que sería de acuerdo con mi declaración. Usted dijo ya había escrito, y yo explicó que lo que quería decir más en la línea de “escribir un buen puesto para que pueda confirmar mi declaración.” Y entonces yo simplemente afirmé usted lo hizo este.

      5. Congratulations, but you’re right— I don’t speak or read Spanish. I was joking. (Remember that comment about not taking what I say at face value?)

      6. (Actually, I seem to recall the comment being to take what you say at face value, not the other way around.)

        And that’s fine, it was fun and I needed the Spanish practice.

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