Fiction Writing Made Easy

#98: How to Add Subplots to Your Novel

July 04, 2023 Savannah Gilbo Episode 98
#98: How to Add Subplots to Your Novel
Fiction Writing Made Easy
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Fiction Writing Made Easy
#98: How to Add Subplots to Your Novel
Jul 04, 2023 Episode 98
Savannah Gilbo

In today’s episode, I’m sharing how to add subplots to your novel. Here’s a preview of what’s included: 

[1:50] Subplots are secondary storylines that receive less emphasis (and page time) than the main plot. The main purpose of any subplot in a novel is to enhance the main theme and conflict of the story.

[2:45] Subplots have three primary relationships to your main plot. They can contradict or complement your theme and/or complicate the central conflict of your story.

[06:05] Subplots typically come into play at the start of the second act (or at the start of the middle section of your story). However, subplots can also start and develop right alongside your primary plotline in act one (or in the begging section of your story).

[09:00] Examples from Pride and Prejudice and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

[11:20] Final thoughts and episode recap


Rate + Review + Follow on Apple Podcasts

"I love the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast!" ← If that sounds like you, please consider rating and reviewing this show! Your rating and review will help other writers find this podcast, and they're also super fun for me to go in and read. Just click here, scroll all the way to the bottom, tap five stars to rate the show, and then select "Write a Review." Be sure to let me know what your favorite part of the episode was, too! 

Also, if you haven't done so already, make sure you're following the podcast! I'll be adding a bunch of bonus episodes to the feed, and if you're not following the show, there's a good chance you'll miss them. Click here to follow now!


Links mentioned in this episode:

FREE RESOURCE: Need help getting started with your story? This workbook will help you flesh out the foundational elements of your story so you can start writing with confidence and ease. Get your free copy here →

👋 Interested in becoming a book coach? Click here to learn more about Author Accelerator's Book Coach Certification Program!

👉 Looking for a transcript? If you’re listening on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, scroll down below the episode player until you see the transcript.

Show Notes Transcript

In today’s episode, I’m sharing how to add subplots to your novel. Here’s a preview of what’s included: 

[1:50] Subplots are secondary storylines that receive less emphasis (and page time) than the main plot. The main purpose of any subplot in a novel is to enhance the main theme and conflict of the story.

[2:45] Subplots have three primary relationships to your main plot. They can contradict or complement your theme and/or complicate the central conflict of your story.

[06:05] Subplots typically come into play at the start of the second act (or at the start of the middle section of your story). However, subplots can also start and develop right alongside your primary plotline in act one (or in the begging section of your story).

[09:00] Examples from Pride and Prejudice and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

[11:20] Final thoughts and episode recap


Rate + Review + Follow on Apple Podcasts

"I love the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast!" ← If that sounds like you, please consider rating and reviewing this show! Your rating and review will help other writers find this podcast, and they're also super fun for me to go in and read. Just click here, scroll all the way to the bottom, tap five stars to rate the show, and then select "Write a Review." Be sure to let me know what your favorite part of the episode was, too! 

Also, if you haven't done so already, make sure you're following the podcast! I'll be adding a bunch of bonus episodes to the feed, and if you're not following the show, there's a good chance you'll miss them. Click here to follow now!


Links mentioned in this episode:

FREE RESOURCE: Need help getting started with your story? This workbook will help you flesh out the foundational elements of your story so you can start writing with confidence and ease. Get your free copy here →

👋 Interested in becoming a book coach? Click here to learn more about Author Accelerator's Book Coach Certification Program!

👉 Looking for a transcript? If you’re listening on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, scroll down below the episode player until you see the transcript.

Speaker 1:

So the most important thing to remember is that subplots are mini-plots, right, but they tend to revolve around characters, and that's because they're used to drive home your stories theme, and this is often best expressed via the change your protagonist and or your secondary characters go through as a result of the conflict they face. Welcome to the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast. My name is Savannah Gilbo and I'm here to help you write a story that works. I want to prove to you that writing a novel doesn't have to be overwhelming, so each week, i'll bring you a brand new episode with simple, actionable and step-by-step strategies that you can implement in your writing right away. So, whether you're brand new to writing or more of a seasoned author looking to improve your craft, this podcast is for you. So pick up a pen and let's get started.

Speaker 1:

In today's episode, we're going to talk about subplots, so we're going to explore the various roles that subplots can play, such as helping you control your story's pace, facilitating character growth and expressing your story's theme. I'm also going to walk you through a few different examples of subplots, from Pride and Prejudice and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. But before we dive into all the details, let's talk about what subplots are, so that we're all on the same page. Subplots are secondary storylines that receive less emphasis and page time than the main plot, and they're really just a formalized way to show that your protagonist's life is complicated and that their ability to accomplish their goal will be affected by everything around them. But, more specifically, subplots can help you control the pacing of your story. By adding conflict, they can provide opportunities for your characters to grow and change. They can contradict or complement your story's theme. They can reveal additional information to your characters or to the reader. They can help you change the mood or tone of any part of the story, and they can add texture, depth and richness to your story as well. So, as you can see, they can do a lot for your story And because of that they're really important.

Speaker 1:

But the main purpose of any subplot in a novel is to enhance the theme of your story and to add conflict to your story. So I want to dig into that a little more, because there are three primary relationships that subplots will have to your main plot, or three functions that they're going to serve in your story. So, first of all, subplots can be used to contradict your story's theme, and subplots that are used in this way help you infuse your story with dramatic irony. So, for example, let's say you're writing a love story with a positive ending for the main couple. That expresses a version of the theme Love Wins or Love Conquers All. If this feels too sweet or too easy for the story that you want to tell, then you can layer in a subplot that revolves around two other characters whose relationship ends negatively or bittersweet. In this instance, your subplot will contradict the main theme of your story, making your overall story more complex and probably more enjoyable for readers as well.

Speaker 1:

Now the second thing you can do with subplots is you can use them to echo your story's theme. So subplots that complement your story's theme can just help strengthen and reinforce your overall message. For example, let's say you're writing an action-adventure story and the theme has something to do with working together being the key to survival, or working as a team just helps the group survive, something like that. Well, you could include a subplot where a secondary character must work with another character so either your protagonist or a different secondary character to survive a smaller part of the overall plot, and in that scenario your subplot would express the same theme as your main plot, but in a different, maybe unusual or unlikely way. And this is what's going to help you create variations on your theme that will strengthen and reinforce your story's overall message. And if that sounds challenging, just think about how many different ways love can win or how many different ways can justice be served. Right, there are so many shades and nuances to themes that if you just spend some time brainstorming, you'll probably find some ways that you can echo your story's main theme.

Speaker 1:

Okay, so the third thing subplots can do is they can complicate your main plot by adding conflict. So these type of subplots can help you add dimension to your characters. They can help you create comic or romantic relief from an otherwise tense or violent story and, primarily, they can just help you make life more difficult for your protagonist. So, for example, let's say you're writing a thriller with a romantic subplot. Well, the romantic subplot is going to add conflict to the main plot by upping the stakes. So now that your protagonist has a love interest, they're likely going to worry about their safety in addition to their own as they work to bring down the antagonist.

Speaker 1:

When you're writing this type of subplot, you do want to be careful not to let it overtake your main story or draw the reader's attention away from your protagonist. So those are the three primary relationships that subplots will have to your main story. So if your subplot doesn't contradict your theme, show variations or echoes of your theme or add conflict to the main plot, so if it doesn't do those things and it kind of just runs alongside your main plot, then it's pretty much going to split your story down the middle and it's going to ruin your story's effect on readers. And that's because the relationship between all of the elements in your story is what holds it together and gives it a sense of unity. So if the reader doesn't feel that sense of unity, they're likely going to disengage from your story and they might not even finish it.

Speaker 1:

Okay, so now that we know what subplots are and the three primary relationships they have to your main plot, let's talk about where they primarily occur, because I get asked this question all the time. Writers will know that they have subplots in mind or that they need to include subplots, but they're like where do I start them, where do they typically end? How do I place them into my outline, and things like that. So subplots typically come into play at the start of the second act or at the start of the middle section of your story, and that's because they help keep things moving forward by raising new story questions, adding conflict to the main storyline and putting pressure on your protagonist to grow and change. That being said, subplots can also start and develop right alongside your primary plot line in Act 1 or in the beginning section of your story.

Speaker 1:

So, as with most things, there's not a hard and fast rule about where a subplot must begin and end, but looking near the end of Act 1 or the beginning of Act 2 is a good place to start. Now, as far as where subplots typically end, there's no hard and fast rule here either. But I'll tell you what I've seen work best in both published novels as well as work in progress drafts. So in most cases, i've seen that impactful subplots will resolve in the reverse order of importance. So let's say, for example, if your most important subplot starts in Act 1 and your least important subplot starts in Act 2, you'd most likely want to resolve your less important subplot before your most important subplot. I'll say that one more time because I know that was kind of a lot. In general, your subplots will probably resolve in the reverse order of importance. So your least important subplot will resolve first and your most important subplot will resolve last. Now again, none of this that I'm saying is a hard and fast rule. I'm just trying to provide some guidelines so you know where to look in terms of where to start and wrap up your subplots.

Speaker 1:

Okay, so let's talk about how to brainstorm subplots for your story, because what if you're listening to all of this and you're like, okay, that sounds great, but I don't even have ideas for my subplots? That's totally fine. We're going to talk about some ways to find subplots in your existing story idea and we're going to look at some examples. So the most important thing to remember is that subplots are mini-plots, right, but they tend to revolve around characters, and that's because they're used to drive home your story's theme, and this is often best expressed via the change your protagonist and or your secondary characters go through as a result of the conflict they face. So, to find subplots within your existing story idea, you can start by answering these two questions Number one can any secondary characters represent an aspect of your theme? And, number two can any secondary characters contribute to the central conflict? Both of these questions will help you make sure that any secondary character or any subplot revolving around one of these secondary characters will be connected to your global story and that they'll have an impact on your protagonist.

Speaker 1:

So let's look at some examples to bring this to life, and the first one I want to go through is from Pride and Prejudice, and this is the Lydia Bennett subplot. So in Pride and Prejudice, Lydia is described as being a reckless and impulsive flirt. She likes attention, especially from really attractive men like Mr Wickham. At some point in the story Lydia runs off with Mr Wickham and she does not think about the consequences of what her actions will do to her reputation and to her sisters. So Lydia's behavior puts her sisters' relationships in jeopardy, but ultimately it helps reunite the two central characters, elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy. So the Lydia subplot is both genre and theme appropriate. It touches on love, intimacy and relationships, albeit in a cautionary way, and it adds to the central conflict. So it's a great example of a subplot that's impactful.

Speaker 1:

Another example that I like involves Hagrid from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. So he's the half-giant, half-human gamekeeper and keeper of keys at Hogwarts, and he loves animals. that's no secret. So at some point in the story when Harry, ron and Hermione learn that Hagrid is hatching an illegal dragon in his hut. This really complicates things. Now the trio has to help Hagrid keep this baby dragon a secret and try to uncover the truth about Nicholas Flamel and the Sorcerer's Stone, all while learning magic and dodging school bullies like Malfoy. No big deal, right. So Hagrid's subplot is both genre appropriate and theme appropriate because it puts Harry in danger and it shows him that adults don't always make the best decisions, and it adds to the central conflict. So it's a very impactful subplot.

Speaker 1:

Now, another thing I get asked all the time is how many subplots should you have in your story? and again, there's no hard and fast rule about the number of subplots that will work for any given story, but most stories have two to three subplots that center around an important secondary character, and that works to increase the conflict. Now, if you're writing something like science fiction or fantasy, you might have room for more than two to three subplots, but if you go too far beyond this, just make sure that every subplot serves a purpose in your story before adding too many. So there you have it. Hopefully you can see how subplots are an invaluable tool for crafting a compelling story. By incorporating secondary storylines that add conflict, deepened characterization and enhance your story's theme, you can create a multi-layered story that captivates readers.

Speaker 1:

Now, before I let you go, let's do a really quick recap of some of the key points we've been over in today's episode. Key point number one is that the main purpose of a subplot in a novel is to enhance the main theme and increase the conflict of a story, and because of that, your subplots will have one of three relationships to your main plot. So either a subplot will contradict your story's theme, it will echo your story's theme, or it will be used to complicate the main plot by adding conflict. Key point number two is that subplots typically occur in the middle section of a story because they help keep things moving forward by raising new story questions, adding conflict to the main storyline and putting pressure on your protagonist to grow and change. However, they can also start at the beginning of your story as well. There are no hard and fast rules for this. And finally, key point number three is that although subplots are many plots, they tend to revolve around characters And to find subplots that are within your existing story idea already you can ask yourself two questions.

Speaker 1:

Number one can my secondary character represent any aspect of your theme? And number two, can any of your secondary characters contribute to the central conflict? Both of these questions will help you make sure that your secondary character and any subplots they're involved in are connected to your global story and that they have an impact on your protagonist. Now the last tip I have for you is to just keep in mind that when adding subplots into your story, it is going to take time to layer them into your main plot, so don't expect to get it perfect or have everything all figured out right out of the gate. Instead, just use these principles and the things we talked about today to help you brainstorm your subplots and make sure that they contribute to your global story and have fun with it. Subplots are definitely something that you can continue to refine as you get to know your story more, so just keep that in mind and have fun with it. So that's it for today's episode.

Speaker 1:

As always, thank you so much for tuning in and for showing your support. If you want to check out any of the links I mentioned in this episode, you can find them in the show notes listed in the description of each episode inside your podcast player or at savannahgobocom forward slash podcast. If you're an Apple user, i'd really appreciate it if you took a few seconds to leave a rating and a review. Your ratings and reviews tell Apple that this is a podcast that's worth listening to And, in turn, your reviews will help this podcast get in front of more fiction writers just like you. And while you're there, go ahead and hit that follow button, because there's going to be another brand new episode next week, full of actionable tips, tools and strategies to help you become a better writer. So I'll see you next week and until then, happy writing.