How to Skillfully Use Subplots in Your Novel

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From Diana Kimpton via Jane Friedman’s blog:

Subplots help pace your story and keep the tension rising. Unfortunately, the name “subplots” wrongly suggests they are somehow inferior or substandard. It also gives the impression that they are something separate from the main plot—a second story running under the first one and completely disconnected from it. Sometimes I find subplots exactly like that in novels I read—usually the ones that aren’t very good. When the authors realize there’s not enough going on, they stick in a completely irrelevant subplot, about a lost cat or a child’s birthday, that gets in the way of the main story and slows the action.

I prefer to think of story strands rather than subplots as that better explains how they work. The main storyline is your central strand carrying the reader forward toward the final conclusion of the book. Other story strands (or subplots) intertwine with the main one, building it up from a single strand into a fascinating, deeply textured plot that will hold your readers’ interest. If you’ve ever plaited hair, you’ll know that different strands become the top one as you work, and writing an interwoven plot is just like that. Although you have the main storyline running through the whole novel, other story strands will be more important at various stages of the book, and some of the twists and turns in the plot come when you move from one strand to another or when two strands collide. The story strands work together to carry the reader toward the end of the book and some, but not necessarily all, will be resolved at or around the same time as the resolution of the main storyline. Others will be resolved during the progress of the story, but this needs to be done with care or, going back to our hair analogy, you’ll end up with an untidy plait with lots of straggly bits sticking out the sides.

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In my young adult novel, There Must Be Horses, one story strand is about the way Sasha’s troubled background has left her unable to trust other people, and another strand is about a horse whose troubled background has made him unable to trust humans. As these mirrored strands weave together, the girl and the horse heal each other and solve each other’s problems.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

1 thought on “How to Skillfully Use Subplots in Your Novel”

  1. That’s a good distinction to make that subplots are “story strands” that are connected to the main storyline. That’s a good definition.

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