If you’re writing a story and need some advice on how to create subplots in a novel, take a look at the following 7 tips!
1. Establish major subplots
Major subplots span the whole novel, run parallel to the main plot, and some of them might even start before the main plot has kicked off in the novel. These must be related to the protagonist, and all of the events of the subplot need to happen within the course of the story, and these need to have an effect on the main plot (direct or indirect).
A major subplot can be related to the protagonist’s relationships (with friends, family, or a romantic interest). It can be also related to their job, especially if the main plot of the novel is not related to their job in the first place.
For example, a romantic novel can have a subplot revolving around the hero and heroine’s jobs. On the other hand, a detective novel can have a major romantic subplot with the detective falling in love with one of the suspects.
The number of major subplots that you can create will vary on how much time (page-wise) you will need to resolve them. Generally, it is most advisable to have one major subplot, and more minor subplots that will not span the whole novel.
2. Add minor subplots
As previously mentioned, minor subplots normally do not span the whole novel. They can last for a chapter or two, and be resolved much more quickly than the major subplots. Additionally, a minor subplot can span the whole novel, but all in all, you would not dedicate too many scenes to it.
Minor subplots can be small mysteries that the protagonist does not need to solve immediately, or solves easily enough. They do not even have to be about the protagonist. They can be related to their friends/family/romantic interest, and a lot of the events of these minor subplots can happen off-the-page, with the protagonist only finding out about what happened instead of being present for the action itself.
3. Use the protagonist’s life
Both major and minor subplots can be related to the protagonist’s life outside of the events of the plot. Use the protagonist’s life to create subplots that help to add depth to the characterization of the protagonist, make them seem more real and more nuanced.
For example, in a detective novel, adding a romance subplot will add nuance to the detective, instead of making them seem that they live and breathe their job. On the other hand, in a romance novel, you should add a subplot related to the lives of the protagonists to avoid giving the readers the feeling that these people live only for the romance.
Perhaps your novel is about a woman trying to advance her career as an artist, but instead of support, her family members are pressuring her to work in their restaurant and give up on her dream.
The way that the protagonist reacts to these subplots and how they approach these minor problems or mysteries to solve is meant to reflect their inner world, their principles, and the issues within themselves that they need to work on.
4. Add romance
Romance has good potential as both a major and a minor subplot. Another benefit of romance is that it makes the story more attractive for some readers (although it might be off-putting for others). Whether you will add romance to the novel or not will depend on the genre you’re writing in and the expectations of the genre.
For example, the horror, thriller, and crime genres rarely have romance as a major subplot. These genres might have romance as a minor subplot only. On the other hand, YA novels, coming of age stories, chic lit, women’s fiction can have either a major or a minor subplot revolving around a romantic interest of the protagonist.
Fantasy and science fiction fall somewhere in between. You can add a major subplot to a fantasy or science fiction novel, you can add a minor romance subplot, or no romance at all if you do not wish to have romance in the novel.
Adding a romantic major subplot that spans the whole novel means that you will focus on it almost as if it’s a parallel main plot. You need to have the protagonist and the love interest meet, fall in love, come to a certain conflict, fight, and then after some reflection, get back together (either in a happily ever after ending, or a happy for now ending).
A romantic minor subplot, however, does not need to follow the expected romantic plot. It can be minimal, with the protagonist showing interest in the love interest throughout a few scenes in the novel, and by the end of the novel, perhaps as far as we would get would be a first date – or a plan to go on such a date.
5. Use the secondary characters to the fullest
The secondary characters in a novel come in two types: major and minor. Major secondary characters are those that are involved in the main plot and are close to the protagonist. They are recurring characters who appear in many of the scenes and chapters in the novel, and most importantly, they also have their own character’s arc throughout the novel. The events of the main plot or any subplots need to affect them just as much as they affect the protagonist.
Minor secondary characters are less involved in the main plot and if they are involved in any subplots, they would be involved in the minor ones at best. They appear less often in the novel.
It is the major secondary characters that you should try to use to the fullest in your novel. Through these characters, you can create both major and minor subplots, and if minor, they can be the ones driving the action off screen.
Often, they try to help the protagonist achieve their main goal, and they are either successful at it or make matters worse for the protagonist. Instead of aiding, they create more obstacles for them instead.
6. Intertwine the major subplots with the main plot
While the minor subplots (regardless whether they are driven by the protagonist or the side characters) can be only loosely related to the main plot, the major subplots need to end up interconnected with the main plot.
The events of the major subplots should either directly or indirectly have an effect on the main plot and the protagonist. As previously mentioned, the major side characters can get involved in a major subplot that either ends up helping the protagonist with their main goal, or hinders them.
For example, in a detective story, if the detective who is investigating a murder has to interview a person who lives too far and doesn’t have the time, their partner (a major side character), can take on this task and complete it for the protagonist. Their success or failure will have an effect on the main plot and how easily the detective will solve the murder.
In a romance novel, a major subplot could be a relationship between two people connected to the hero and the heroine (perhaps the heroine’s sister gets involved with the hero’s best friend). While the protagonists themselves are not directly involved, if the other couple starts to fight or have problems, this could influence and challenge the relationship between the hero and the heroine and add tension to the main romantic plot between them.
7. Do not resolve all minor subplots
Standalone novels (that are not parts of series) tend to have all the major subplots finished and completed. The mysteries have been resolved, and the side problems have been taken care of, especially those that stemmed from and were related to the main plot.
But, when it comes to the minor subplots, consider leaving some of those open-ended and unfinished, even if your novel is a standalone novel. By leaving some things open-ended, you allow for the possibility of continuing the story in a book series. This happens often in romance novels, with major side characters close to the hero and heroine becoming protagonists of their own novels.
Moreover, if you are writing a book series, then leaving some minor subplots unresolved is very beneficial. It allows you to continue the story and it will entice the readers to pick up the next book not just for the major overarching plot that spans the whole series, but also for the minor subplots to find out what happened.