Category Archives: Subplot

Author Toolbox #1: Plotting, Sub-Plotting, and Series Threads

This post was written for the Author Toolbox Blog Hop where we share our new discoveries on the craft of writing, editing, querying, marketing, publishing, and blogging tips. Posted every third Wednesday of the month. For rules and sign-up click here.


Hi I’m new to the toolbox meme, and I wanted to thank Erika. I read one of her posts and before I knew it I was signing up too. I regularly post about my latest discoveries. When I’ve spent hours root them out, I figure the least I can do is share.

You’ll note I’ve included some links to previous posts. Not because I’m all knowing—we all know I’m not. It’s more of a just-in-case-you’re-interested kind of thing. Enjoy.

This month I’ve being reviewing plotting, sub-plotting and how to drag the threads through a series. Here’s what I’ve gleaned so far.


Plotting seems straight forward to most. A person telling a story around the campfire knows the tension is increasing, and the twist is a surprise from the listener’s reaction.

Not so true when the work is happening in front of a computer. There may be no one but the writer tapping away, throwing in one great idea after another, and topping it all off with a twist or two.  Eventually ending it by blowing the reader away.

Well that’s the plan. Okay that’s usually my plan. Turned out if I don’t do a bit more planning I land up with something else.

So now I come up with a core idea (usually a mystery) that I plot along a three-act structure, striving for one thing—increasing tension and at least one surprise. Without feedback, I have to use my instincts; later, when the time is right, I’ll pick on a few beta readers.

How do I know I’m succeeding?

Once I get all my bright ideas and twists down I write an outline. Please don’t judge me. I do this as a substitute for people around my campfire. Without an audience, I have to be quite critical to get it right. The final copy looks very similar to a synopsis and I’ll use it when I’m querying.

Since this rarely lets me reach my word count, I need to find ways to enhance the storyline. Adding some depth to my supporting cast works by giving them plots of their own.


I guess the biggest question is where does all the tension come from? The protagonist needs to get something done and one person is out to stop them.

Not always.

Personally, if the antagonist showed up on page one in my work and the two of them battled it out, the story is over before it started. As I’m sure you know, mysteries tend to hide the villain until the end.

The supporting cast can fill in for the antagonist and get in the way of achieving the goal… But they need reasons to do so.

One word that always pops into my head is mother. I’m a perfect mother and never annoy my twenty-something son. He never feels I’m interfering or meddling in any way.

But don’t ask him about it, he may tell you the truth. hehehe

So my protagonist always has mother issues. Sometimes best-friend issues and boss issues as well. Keep the list growing and the sub-plots will be plentiful. I’m sure I’m not the only one who noticed that life can get in the way: broken limbs, engine trouble, lenders, borrowers, unexpected ninjas visitors, unemployment, pregnancy, love, hate, and boredom.

Some links:

Series Threads (and the bible):

I write mysteries and very often mysteries lead to a series. With that in mind I try to keep track of people, places and events. The collection of series’ details is called a bible.

Consistency is paramount when writing something over several books. Be kind to yourself and keep track of it all. Unless the mother figure in the book is constantly dying her hair, losing/gaining weight, and shrinking and/or growing. Plan on some kind of reference material.

It can be as simple as bookmarking a special copy of your work to cutting and pasting a special file for each person, place, or event. No one wants to be the person who has to go all their work looking for their mother’s neighbor’s dog’s name because it is suddenly the crux of the next book.

What have I learned?

That only I know the direction my story is going and how exactly I want to get there. Although I seek out feedback, I don’t always take it. I do, however, give each piece of advice serious consideration, knowing the bones of the story really helps me stay on track.

I work hard at being a good storyteller because only a few have been kind enough to read my work. The ones that do deserve my very best effort and I try to put it out there by doing quite a bit of preparation.

What about you? I know you know something I don’t, so share some of your wisdom that gets you through plotting, sub-potting, and series-fact tracking.

Tracking Subplots + Why Go That Far?

Okay, we know we want to have subplots. But if we have several, how should we keep track of it all?

From my reading, everyone has their own method of tracking subplots, although, they do seem to have one thing in common and that’s a gird. Here’s one example of how JK Rowling does it. Other approaches include using index cards, whiteboards, spreadsheets, or storyboards. All attempting to organize and keep the subplots clear in the writer’s mind as they write. And for your downloading pleasure, I also found a link to Subplot Tracker Worksheet.


Examine your method and follow each plot/subplot from beginning to end. The subplots can be assigned colors to track them at a glance. The color also serves another purpose. It makes monitoring the balance of subplots and keeping them relatively equal, unless you’ve decided one is supposed to be larger/smaller. As you read in my previous post Subplots Add Character: Here’s How + Subplots and Why We Need Them.

There are two main reasons why planning is key.

One, subplots need a beginning, middle and end. Now, I don’t mean they start at the beginning of the book and end near the end. They can start and end anytime during the story or series. What I am reporting is they can’t be abandoned or forgotten.

Subplots contain their own questions

The subplot must live on, finish up, or in extreme cases, and this is the only time that I’m good with this, end in a cliff hanger. All questions must be addressed by the end of the storyline. Some questions that come up are: will the romance continue, is forgiveness possible, will past mistakes haunt a character indefinitely, did the purse snatcher get caught? Whatever it may be, don’t leave it dangling.

And two, subplots need to directly interact with the main plot. If for some reason the subplot doesn’t interfere, complicate, or interact with the plot it needs to be removed. Having a method to check, and double check that the subplot has purpose in the novel is paramount. Just like a scene, it needs its place in the overall story.

All mistakes can be fixed. When it comes to fixing subplots, or complicated story lines; think of what toppling, or removing, a domino in a delicate and detailed design. Everything might be fine until it hits the gap, then everything stops or goes in the wrong direction.

That is not what I want to try to fix. What about you? Have you methods that brought success, or mistakes you’d like us all to avoid. Be sure to share in the comments. 🙂


Subplots Add Character: Here’s How

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

The Past
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.

Branching Out
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.

Parallel Roads
Another type of subplot is presented side by side (as above) but the characters involved art pixabay CC0 tigerdo 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.

The Magnet
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.

Subplots and Why We Need Them

So for a while now I’ve been posting writing tips when I feel I’ve mostly mastered them. I’ll share what I’ve learned and share so the squeaky new writer can read my posts (along with others) rather than starting from scratch. I did the starting-from-scratching thing and it was hard; mostly because, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And the list was a long one.

Now I’m in the middle of my writing adventure (career) and it looks very similar to the middle of the three-act-structure. What I’m getting at is that ‘the middle’ is the biggest section. Anyway, I’m in the middle. I know somethings and still need to learn a lot about the craft. Some days I think I’ll never get out of the middle and I’m mostly okay with that. But each time I make a discovery I pursue it and store it away for reference.

Today I researched Subplots.

Also check out: Backstory: Past Events Build Character Subplots Add Character: Here’s How + Tracking Subplots and Why We Go So Far

Here’s why

I have only written shorts for publication. So how to do I jump from shorts to full length novels?

Add more words.

Right, but isn’t the main plot defined as a protag striving for a goal and antag attempting to stop him.

If this is true, and I believe it is, how do I add more words without bogging the story down?

Incorporate subplots.

What are subplots?

Before I researched, I thought they were secondary plotlines based on the supporting characters.

This is true, but there is so much more.

When you read a series, the subplot is what links the books together—common characters, location, or events. Additional plotlines humanize the characters by giving them their own character arc. They can clarify motivations, deepen tension, and interfere or complicate the protag achieving their goal.

If plot is a section of fence, the subplots are the vine(s) that grow upon it. Together they are stronger, more vines, more color, more intertwined action. It can be beautiful from afar and very complex under closer scrutiny. This apparently makes for a great novel.

Easy peasy? I don’t know, but I have a general idea of what I need to do. Is there anything you’d like to add? I’m all ears, and would love to hear from you.