Subplots have a way of taking over novels. They steal all the action, distract the protagonist, or in the worst cases, shine brighter than the actual plot. Good subplots enhance the story, support the theme, brighten what’s already there, while a bad subplot tries to smother it in its sleep with a pillow.
The annoying part is, sometimes we just don’t know which is which when they first come to us. Some of the best-looking subplots I ever had were the literary equivalent of will-o-the-wisps. Shiny ideas heading off with purpose and enticing me to follow their light and see where they went. It wasn’t until I was deep in the swamp that I realized I’d been led astray. However, there have been just as many times that bright light led me to a brighter subplot that brought my entire novel to a new level.
How can we tell is a subplot is helping or hurting? Ask:
1. Will this scene or subplot make the story better or just longer?
Distracting subplots add more of what we’ve already written, just with new details. All it does is delay the time your protagonist completes her goal. Another chase scene, another example of the protagonist making bad decisions based on emotions, another person who abandons her when things get tough. If the subplot doesn’t bring anything new to the story or character, odds are it will dump you by the side of the road after weeks of work and make you cut everything associated with it. By the end of this subplot, will readers understand something they didn’t before?
2. Does it raise the stakes or just do something similar to what you’ve already done?
If you’re going off on a tangent, that tangent should lead somewhere new and create higher stakes or more tension for your characters. Pinpoint exactly what you gain by this diversion. What about this subplot will matter to readers so much they need to see it unfold? How will it change your protagonist’s goal? How will it make things harder for your protagonist? By the end of this subplot, things should be worse for the protagonist than they were before, either internally or externally.
3. Does it require more attention and page space than the main plot?
Often we question a subplot because it feels like it’s hijacking the story (or it’s demanding to become the story). If you feel you’ve spent too much time on it, look to see how much more page time you’ll need to wrap it up. If you know it’s going to take another nine chapters of your 27 chapter novel, and drag you further away from your core conflict, that’s a big red flag this might not be the best subplot. For really demanding subplots–it might be worth an objective look to see if this is the story you actually want to tell. Sometimes we start off on the wrong foot and the wrong subplot leads us to the right story.
Going off target can lead us to a wonderful place we’d never have found otherwise, but sometimes, it just leads us off to die alone in the woods. As long as we pay attention to the path we’re on and where we’re going, we’ll be better equipped to identify the type of subplot inviting us on a walk.
Has a subplot ever lead you astray?