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Weaving Subplots
Into a Novel

2009 Lori L. Lake


A writer recently asked how she could go about interjecting a subplot into her finished manuscript. She had come to the natural end of her story and was dismayed to find it was only about 35,000 words long. That's perhaps 20,000 words (maybe even 30,000-40,000 for some publishers) short of a novel and far too long to be considered a "short" story. She wondered how she could get the piece published? Various people advised her to lengthen the tale. She was completely flummoxed because the actual storyline was complete in and of itself. What could she do to turn it into a novel?

I completely understood her concern because adding subplots after a manuscript is complete is difficult. Weaving in more content - meaningful content, that is - can be downright problematic. First, what in the world can be added to an already-complete story? And second, how does one keep the added pieces from seeming choppy or artificial - in other words, tacked on?

The answer to both of those questions lies in assembling additional threads, i.e. subplots, that enhance the original story line and can be woven into it.

Where Do The Threads Come From?

The best subplots arise in a natural way out of the events of the main plot. For most novels, the protagonist seeks something, yearns for something, is trying to gain something. S/he is not a single-minded Terminator, so what additional goals exist, even if they are secondary? Which of those goals are in opposition to the main goal that drives the novel's plot? Which of them are distractions? Which are important enough that they cause the character conflict and "terrible trouble" that is worth working in?

One of the easiest ways to identify a subplot is to ask yourself (or ask your protagonist) what else is going on in the protagonist's life? What other dire issues, troubles, and conflicts are available to plumb and wring drama out of? Speaking of "plumb," mystery writer Janet Evanovich usually includes two standard subplots in her Stephanie Plum series: 1) Stephanie's romantic issues, and 2) something goofy that is happening within Stephanie's family of origin. In addition, Evanovich regularly puts Stephanie into contact with others who have "issues," and one (or perhaps even more) minor subplots will arise out of that and/or the social context of her novels. Without these subplots, Evanovich's mystery novels might not even be 35,000 words long!

Avoiding Choppiness and Artificiality

A subplot that will *not* feel interjected is one that does at least one of the following:
  • helps to move the main plot forward;
  • raises the stakes in a significant way for the main character's situation (or someone else's);
  • allows for plot twists;
  • deepens characterization;
  • reveals suspense and/or significant foreshadowing;
  • provides useful and interesting contrast to the main story; and/or
  • entertains and delights.
Subplots can also arise out of the actions and reactions of secondary characters that somehow involve your main plot, protagonist, and/or main characters. Typical subplots include: physical or psychological issues for the main character(s) or someone they care about; romance (lack of, newly gained, lost, etc.); conspiracies; good v. evil; social issues (poverty, crime, scientific or social problems, etc.); temptations/adultery; problems with children, spouse, or family; the safety of someone important; the effects of aging; unhealthy practices (drinking, drugs, gambling, etc.); issues/conflict in the workplace; ethical concerns; grief/loss; friends and relatives with problems that spill over; etc.

Perhaps in a dramatic or romantic plot, somebody's nosy, homophobic relative comes to visit, which causes delays in the lovers being able to connect. That subplot could be played for laughs - or pain and anguish - depending upon the themes of the novel overall.

Subplots can be very useful in distracting your reader from issues or clues in the main plot. This goes for a mystery where the subplot can be its own little MacGuffin that catches readers' attention and draws them away from figuring things out too early. Or it can work as a distraction in any drama. You may even find that adding subplots adds dramatic tension because it takes longer for the main plot's resolution to arrive.

Mystery Example

You can easily have a significant main plot and a major subplot, as well as several incidental subplots that perhaps are not part of the climax of the book but that add humor, history, information, or development of key characters for future books in a series.

The writer who initially brought up this topic had written a mystery which was far too short, and she wanted to try to weave in a subplot that would have a major impact on the main plots. Here is an example of how that could be done with a mystery. Let's say that the story is about a PI searching for a missing co-ed, Britney Benson, on behalf of her parents. All evidence points to someone at the college dorm having harmed Britney. The sleuth does her detecting, narrows down her suspect pool, and has a climactic scene with the student who kidnapped the young woman. At the completion of 35,000 words, the sleuth pursues and kills the kidnapper at great risk to herself and returns Britney to her grateful parents.

As it stands, the novel is a little too cut and dried - too episodic. What if the writer adds some major complications that constitute a subplot? An unidentifiable dead girl is found floating in the river, and for three tense days, the Bensons don't know if it's their daughter. Dental comparisons rule her out, but our sleuth discovers it's the second college girl murdered in two months. Where is the Benson girl? Is she doomed to be Number Three?

Now the PI has to branch out the investigation and see if the other two girls are in any way connected to Britney - and of course, they are. She talks to their parents, tries to get information out of the police, and questions other possible witnesses. Discovering more about the other two dead girls' circumstances will tie into the sleuth's attempts to get to Britney before she's killed. The subplots about Victim #1 and Victim #2 will complicate matters while still augmenting the main plot about Britney's disappearance.

Romantic/Dramatic Examples

Romances and dramas typically contain a subplot or two. For a "Girl Meets Girl, Girl Loses Girl, Girls Wins Her Back" romance alone, the plot points are too few, and it's rather difficult to create an entire such novel without subplots. Usually the author inserts major subplot complications into the "Loses Girl" section of the book, and often they have to do with the reasons the two lovers didn't connect or couldn't stay connected. Interfering relatives, mean bosses, other suitors, and the appearance of general borderline sociopaths (i.e., ex-partners) are often key players in what keeps the lovers apart.

In addition, most romances and dramas have an external journey for the main characters to carry out and an internal journey as well. Until the protagonist(s) manage to deal with and conquer some internal aspect, they cannot achieve the major goal contained in the external plot. Typical aspects might include: commitment phobias; faith in self or others; insecurities; grief/loss issues; various fears; misunderstandings; etc.

For instance, Karin Kallmaker's novel Finders Keepers is about two women with significant body image issues that both keep hidden. Marissa constantly fights the "battle of the bulge" and feels inadequate while Linda, though thin and beautiful, keeps secrets about how she got that way. The two meet, are attracted, and then are driven apart by their own insecurities. The external goal - finding true love - has to be on hold until each character's internal journey moves her along toward resolution of the inner demons keeping each from committing to "Happily Ever After."

Parallel Plots

Sometimes a novelist finds that a secondary character is very strong, and that his or her journey is almost as fascinating as the protagonist's, but not quite strong enough to warrant star billing in a novel. In that case, the novel could be expanded by adding a second main plot.

I recently saw the movie Julie and Julia, about blogger Julie Powell who challenged herself in one year to successfully prepare all 524 recipes in Julia Child's Mastering The Art of French Cooking. The movie goes back and forth between Julie's present-day life and Julia Child's life and work from the late 1940s until the now-famous cookbook was published in 1961. It's not until late in the movie that Julie and Julia's lives intersect, and some of the themes each woman is dealing with (love of food, the art of cooking, supportive husbands) are similar, while other themes (struggling to achieve in a male-dominated field, holding together a personal life and a work life) pose significant contrasts. There are enough similarities to weave their lives into the same tapestry while also showing how much societal attitudes have changed in the fifty-odd years that passed between the time Julia Child worked so hard to make her mark on cooking and Julie Powell came along to reflect back on what has changed. The script was created by juxtaposing aspects of Julia Child's memoir with Julie Powell's, and this "mash-up" worked marvelously.

Key Issues

It's important to note that any and all subplots (or parallel plots) must COMPLEMENT and/or provide CONTRAST to the main plot. I've read far too many student manuscripts where the secondary characters' woes hijack the entire novel and run amok over the main plot. I've also seen manuscripts where the protagonist is hobbled because his or her character arc and character journey are overwhelmed by the flashiness of the subplot and its characters. In some cases the subplots are so similar to the main plot that it feels like the author wants to give the reader double vision.

The subplot must feel organic to the story. For that to happen, it must significantly affect the plot and/or the characters. Since the characters drive the plot, as long as you connect the subplot *somehow* to the protagonist and his or her journey (or to important secondary characters and their journey), the plot will feel natural.

In any case, one of the most important aspects to include an effective subplot is to see what and who most affects the protagonist and their goals, THEN use that knowledge to work back through the manuscript to add scenes and include references to the scenes you already wrote in the first draft.

Questions To Ask
Three questions are particularly helpful for finding a subplot:

1. What does the protagonist want the most? Then what? Then what?
If your main character wants one thing and one thing only, it can make the struggle seem rather simple or inconsequential. To have a protagonist yearning for one major goal while also seeking something else is an excellent way to add drama and depth. The swordsman may want the princess's hand in marriage - but he also wants to prove his worth, find his place in the world, and perhaps impress his father, all of which work as subplots to support the main plot as he pursues the princess.

2. If there is more than one protagonist (or a very strong antagonist), how do their desires, wants, and/or goals coincide, and how do they contrast?
This is particularly useful in romances and dramas. Pitting two "good guys" against one another or a "good guy" against a "bad guy" can result in some powerful subplots. For instance, in a Coming of Age type of story about two basketball players vying for one MVP award, the author could write parallel plots, or there are a number of subplots to select. Maybe one player comes from a rich family, the other from poverty, and the poorer one has extra struggles to contend with that provide a subplot containing additional background, history, and conflict. Or what if the coach intensely dislikes the rich kid and covertly takes steps to put obstacles in that athlete's way? The coach's actions and motivations become excellent subplot material.

3. Who is the most important secondary character in the protagonist's world - the one who causes the most drama? (Sidekick? Partner? Spouse? Boss? Child? Ex? Prospective lover? The Villain/Antagonist?)

This is one of the easiest resources for subplot ideas. Any secondary character who has influence on the protagonist or who figures in the main plot is ripe for selection. I think of Cordelia Thorn, Jane Lawless's sidekick and best friend in Ellen Hart's mystery series. In addition to the comic role Cordelia plays so often, she's also an auntie who's mourning the removal of her niece by her selfish, space-cadet sister. Many readers have followed that subplot from the book it appeared in (The Merchant of Venus in 2001's tenth book) to the latest incarnation of the 17-book (so far) series.

Final Comment

Usually one of those questions will yield a topic - or a theme - that makes for a good subplot. In my experience, the addition of another thread to a novel often adds color, depth, and joy for the reader.

Subplots need not be so large and involved that they take from beginning to end of the novel to resolve. Just like in Real Life, issues arise, get fixed (or cause new problems), and then are (mostly) resolved. Many minor subplots will crop up and be resolved, but including more than a couple of major subplot threads can overwhelm the main plot, so choose wisely.
_____
2009 Lori L. Lake
From her untitled book about writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author.
Lori can be reached at Lori@LoriLLake.com and welcomes questions and comments.


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