Is That Subplot Helping or Hurting Your Novel?

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?

8 Responses to Is That Subplot Helping or Hurting Your Novel?

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Mar 25 2015 at 10:46 am #

    I don’t really have subplots. The way I write my stories, they’re more like co-plots, or para-plots. They run alongside what I think of as the main plot, and are often independent of it, but somehow they come together to resolve an issue that none of the characters really knows about, since the conflict can also be spread across all of them, so no one sees everything in its entirety.

    • Janice Mar 26 2015 at 8:05 am #

      Nice. Sounds like you have a natural affinity for weaving plots.

      • Marc Vun Kannon Mar 26 2015 at 8:47 am #

        I don’t think about plots, I think about the people. I have the endpoint, or some version of it, in mind. The plot follows the person, as he pursues his own goals, and sometimes those pursuits overlap. The trick is to have them overlap in just the right way that they sum up to achieve the endpoint, but none of them by themselves will achieve it. Try synopsizing that some time. Even more headache-inducing than writing the story.

  2. amy koss Mar 25 2015 at 3:35 pm #

    Thanks for the reminder…. just when i needed it!

    • Janice Mar 26 2015 at 8:05 am #

      Most welcome! (Is it just me or do you have my photo as your avatar? How strange! Must be a site goof)

  3. Marianne Curley Mar 25 2015 at 5:33 pm #

    Hi Janice

    This is a great article and a good reminder for authors new and experienced. I have six books published and subplots that don’t move the story forward, but slow the pace even though in the writer’s head at the time they sound wonderful, can still get in my way. Thanks for this reminder.

    All the best

    • Janice Mar 26 2015 at 8:08 am #

      Happy to help. One thing I love about blogging about writing, is that I’m constantly reminding myself of the basics and what I ought to keep an eye out for. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written about something then thought, “Hmm…am I doing this?” and double checked my own work, and sure enough, lazy writing had gotten through 🙂

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