Now that I know I need subplots in my story, where do I start?
I like to start by linking back to what I know already. You’ve read some of my posts on characterization—Backstory: Past Events Build Character + Subplots and Why We Need Them + Tracking Subplots and Why We Go So Far
Simple answer to incorporate a subplot, add a character with their own goals, and needs into the story. Let them interfere with the main character (eventually) causing complications that must be dealt with before the story can continue. I’m not referring to the antag. No, these characters are the protag’s friends, workmates, family, and worse yet—a friend of a friend of theirs. The goal is to bring as much real life into the plot as is reasonable.
Who lives their lives with only one thing going on? I have to deal with family, work, pets, my car, etc and still try to meet commitments. It is these little irritations that can be shared over coffee, making friends laugh or cry with you.
But remember adding a subplot is not about word count, it must have a purpose. Before writing a word, make sure the subplot pushes the story forward, interrelates, and adds tension to the overall plot. Subplot must make the story stronger.
Adding subplots through additional characters
One of the most common subplots is introducing the main character at a previous time of their life. This can be presented as a parallel story of how the MC faced a similar event or antagonist and failed, or it can fill in back story that clarifies motivation.
Another still involving the main character is, s/he is trying to do more than one thing at a time: like job hunting, getting ready to move, and visiting a loved one in the hospital. The main character is living up to others expectations, while also trying to meet their personal goals. This is where branching out to other supporting cast members can be introduced.
Another type of subplot is presented side by side (as above) but the characters involved do not converge at the climax. One character still interferes with the other but from a distance, or unknowingly started a domino effect that complicates the main plot. If the plots do converge, it can be often or not with varying degrees of interference. When I think of this I think affair. Two wo/men never meet but both lives are affected by the others.
Bumping and Banging
Some subplots are almost as big as the main plot when you track the antag and protag slowly bumping into each other (like in a thriller) which inevitably leads to the climax of good against evil in a huge blow out. Chapter by chapter each player moves towards/away from the other attempting to meet their goals.
There are also parallel stories that eventually merge into the main plot and as a group of face the climax.
Theme Related (or The Story Line Continues)
Joy commented on my first blog about subplots. She brought up a very good point. Some characters have such a strong story line that they inspire a book of their own. In a romance series, it is very common to branch out from a group of characters, creating two new lovers and a new romance. In a mystery series, it’s the supporting cast that helps solve crime, or interferes with it, that become as important as the main character.
Just Passing Through
Occasionally there are guest characters that pop in and out of the story, adding a humanizing touch. Every character has a life s/he lives elsewhere; family and friends they love. Some of these characters come in at the beginning only to return at the resolution. Thinks of a purse snatcher that gets away, then much later the MC see them arrested as she rakes her lawn, adding a nice touch of satisfaction.
And finally, the character that brings two worlds together like the wealthy volunteer that helps at a free clinic, or a doctor that goes to a third-world country, or an adopted child brought in to a stable home after living on the street. Sometimes these characters are holders of secrets, of insights, of chaos and bring a new flavor.
I’m sure if we look around our everyday lives we’ll notice more characters we could incorporate. Have I missed anyone? Please share in the comments.