In previous posts, I discussed how to foreshadow and how to add suspense to your novel.
One of the points I intentionally left out was the subplot.
A subplot is an excellent tool for writers adding suspense and character dimension to their novel. The best authors know that much of a novel’s success depends on the interplay of plot and subplot. If your plot seems to be falling flat, or if your story starts to resonate as too one-note, it could be that a well-woven subplot is just what you need to add the kind of complexity and tension that readers crave.
When writers and authors begin to view subplots as material to weave into our main action, it becomes easier to see the strands of the plot individually—and to feel confident handling them.
I have outlined below seven ways to add a subplot to your story.
Although you can begin the weaving itself at any stage of writing, it’s helpful to work out your subplots as fully as you can before starting to integrate them into your main plot. In other words, before we weave, we must spin our threads.
For most of us, subplots serve to make life difficult for our characters, and since most fiction starts with characters, so will your subplots.
1. The Isolated Chunk
Too many aspiring authors feel they shouldn’t use this technique because it seems stupidly easy, more like cheating than actually weaving subplot. Be assured—terrific authors have effectively used this technique for certain kinds of subplots.
If you’ve got a subplot that can work as a side trip for your main character, there’s no reason you can’t employ this technique.
Forget transitions and just start a new section or chapter. Tell your story-within-a-story, and then return to your main narrative. If your narrative is solely the first person, you’ll find this technique especially useful, as your main character can experience only one thing at a time.
2. The Parallel Line
You can also write a subplot that never touches the main plot, or that begins separately before they converge.
Start your story with your main plot and get going with your main cast of characters, especially your hero. Then insert the beginning of your second plot. Switch back and forth between the stories as evenly as you can; this will emphasize their symmetrical/diametric natures. The problem that occurs frequently is not linking the plots. Make a note, comment or remark of how it’s related to the reader, so they don’t question why the subplot is happening until halfway through the story.
You can make your parallel plot any size and significance that suits you. This is especially useful for a protagonist-antagonist story, like many thrillers, mysteries, and young adult tales.
3. The Swallowtail Line
When you want to create suspense that pays off big, try launching two parallel plots, then weaving them together firmly at a certain point. Fantasy authors use this technique with the multiple viewpoints, running parallel and intertwining with the main plot, for example, Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings.
The difference between parallel construction and swallowtail is that the two paths of the swallowtail always converge and interact with each other for a fairly lengthy part of the story. Parallel plots may never converge; if they do, it is usually briefly, at the story’s end.
Swallowtail stories start with one main plot and then, after it’s off and running, launch into a completely different tale. The reader naturally wonders what, if anything, this guy and his situation will have to do with that guy and his. Which introduces suspense, just like that. For a while, it seems as if the two lines of action are completely separate, but eventually, they move closer to each other, which heightens the reader’s anticipation. Then they mesh, producing extra reader satisfaction, and both plots gain complexity going forward.
Alternating between two or more parallel plots (though more than three risks confusing the reader) makes your separate characters and their stories converge at a point, that is, something or place they have in common.
4. The In-and-Out Characters
This technique is using side characters that populate the subplots and dip in and out of the main characters life in a satisfying progression, each incident a complete little story in itself. I might add that if you’re using a first-person narrator and want to show a subplot out of his/her range, so to speak, you can drop in chapters written in the third person, then return to your first-person narrator. Many contemporary writers do this, I don’t.
Let your subplots shuttle in and out as needed. For example, you can bring a mentor into the first or second chapter, have him dispense some advice, then send him off on a journey that may have nothing to do with your story. He comes back in the seventh chapter and is once again available for consultation with your hero. He might have encountered trouble while away, even trouble he brings back with him (in the form, say, of a sketchy sidekick).
5. The Near The End Recursion
Readers love recursion. If you introduce a subplot early, then leave it more or less alone until you resolve it near the end, readers will be delighted.
You can save a subplot to wrap up at the end (after the main plot) as it gives readers a place to collect themselves after the emotional high of the climax and savor the fact that order has been restored. Then they get an extra, unexpected treat.
It’s nice if you give a bit of foreshadowing somewhere in the middle. You can refer back to my foreshadowing techniques if you need to. Four Ways to Foreshadow in Your Story
6. The Bridge Character
Bridge characters are extremely useful for weaving any kind of subplot into your fiction. Invent a character who is as different from your current crop as possible—someone who occupies a separate world. Or start with the two worlds you want to bridge, and think up a character who can do it. Doctors, lawyers, counselors, and clergy, in particular, all have great potential as bridge characters. Why? Because people end up telling them their secrets.
7. The Subtly Clues
For writers of mystery, suspense or thrillers, weaving in clues is a major—and particularly strategic—subplot challenge. Clues propel the unraveling of a puzzle, and they serve to entertain your audience. They’re optional inclusions in most genres, but if you’re writing crime, you’ve got to have them.
Plant clues early and often, noting an important distinction: A clue for your fictional sleuth is a different thing than a clue for your reader. Some of the most intriguing clues have sprung from the minds of authors who had a great idea for a clue but not the slightest notion how it would work out—but put it in any way hoping for the best.
Last Note For Subplots
Give yourself permission to expand your fictional world. An unwieldy subplot that interrupts your narrative for too long? Break it into pieces
and disperse them more broadly. Or invent two characters instead of one to carry it out. Do a jump cut between plot and subplot, and let it sit for a day. Then read it and see how it looks.
Think of subplots as simply strands of stories that support or drive the main plot.
Subplots bring realism to your main plot simply by existing—by interrupting the flow. Because life doesn’t move forward all at once. Interruptions happen and change rushes in.
Have you used any of these techniques?
I hope this helps and if you have any concerns and more questions, ask me below. If you think someone has an interesting point of view and answer, please invite them or share this post with them.