Make subplots integral to the story

We’re still working on the Plot section of the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist.

Subplots arise organically and make sense as they unfold, not only in light of the ending.

Done right, subplots add richness and depth to a novel. They give us a chance to see characters in different lights and see the results of the plot from different angles. But a subplot that arises out of nowhere for no apparent reason will distract the reader. Having a “now it all makes sense” moment at the very end isn’t a great help, because by that point you may already have lost the reader.

© Maksym Yemelyanov -
© Maksym Yemelyanov –

To relate the subplot closely to the primary plot, edit in some clues and ties between them. If both plotlines involve one or more of the same characters, you’re halfway there. Just make sure the subplot isn’t hanging out somewhere by itself. For example, you may have a subplot with a character’s business and another with his family. In real life, our family and work lives often intertwine and create problems in one direction or the other. Or both. Use that.

If the subplot characters are different from the main plot characters, look for ways to have them interacting, preferably often, and in a way that’s meaningful to the primary story, if not the subplot also. But keep it real. Don’t force the story into an implausible channel.

This can be tricky when you have Plot A starting in City One and Plot B starting in City Two with two sets of characters who don’t meet until some distance into the story. If this is the case, give them something in common. They’re aware of the same events, or they’re in the same region, or two of the characters come from the same culture. Give the reader some reason to believe these two groups belong in the same story. The sooner you can introduce them to each other, the better.

In Janalyn Voigt’s fantasy novel Wayfarer, for example, the main plot features Elcon, from the Kindren culture, and the subplot features Aewen, from the Elder culture. When Aewen is introduced, it’s not clear what she has to do with Elcon, but she is aware of the geographic relationship between their two lands. The history of conflict between them is revealed in Elcon’s run-in with another Elder character. The plotlines come together just past the one-quarter mark of the story. That’s what I’m talking about.

Tangents add to, rather than detract from, the main plot.

When you have multiple storylines in your novel, you don’t want them to run on parallel tracks. You want stories that intertwine and intersect before coming together, like the highways in New Jersey leading up to the George Washington Bridge.

I once read a novel in which the subplot characters lived in the same town as the primary plot characters, and knew some of the same people, but that was their only connection. Because the stories weren’t mutually integral, the second story just distracted from the first. The whole thing felt as if the subplot had just been thrown in to pad the word count to the publisher’s arbitrary minimum (a practice I dislike).

Make the subplot integral to the story, or cut it out. I know it’s painful. I’ve done it, and to my own work, not only that of others. Save it for a “deleted scenes” feature on your website. Every scene in your story should build toward the conclusion. This kind of honing will sharpen your story.

Disclosure of Material Connection: The Amazon link above is an affiliate link. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive a pittance of a commission from Amazon. Regardless, I only recommend books I believe will be of value to my readers. Yeah, this is me totally plugging my friend’s book with an affiliate link. At least I’m disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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