What is life without the drama – the good and bad experiences, the whirlwind of complicated emotions, and the unexpected turn of events? No matter how much you hate the curveballs that life throws at you, the truth is that our existence will be reduced to a boring saga without the complexities and uncertainties of life. The same goes with writing a story.

In any story, the main plot is the skeleton that holds the story together. And subplots breathe life into the story by adding layers of complexities, character development arcs, plot twists, and much more. Subplots are nothing but secondary stories woven into the main plot that directly or indirectly impact the proceedings of your main plot.

Think of your story as an orange: the main plot is the sweet edible part of the orange and the subplots are the layers that cover the orange. Just like the way the layers protect the orange from going bad and preserve its sweet taste, subplots ensure that your story doesn’t fall weak and the main plot stays intriguing throughout the entire length of the book.

Subplots are a great way to complement the main plot. You can do this by:

  • Adding additional conflict to the story
  • Creating plot twists
  • Defining characters and shaping their character arcs
  • Covering up the loopholes in the main plot
  • Revealing back stories
  • Speeding up or slowing down the pace of the story according to the need

Here are a few ways to incorporate subplots into your story:

  • Supporting/Secondary Character’s POV:

    More often than not themain plot tells the story from the main character’s point of view and it focuses on his goals, conflicts, etc. Approaching the same story from a supporting character’s point of view provides a great premise for a subplot. For example: In Harry Potter and The Half Blood Prince, Harry sees Snape kill Dumbledore and believes that Snape has betrayed Dumbledore. But in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, both Harry and the readers see things from Snape’s point of view and learn that it was Dumbledore who had ordered Snape to kill him. This little subplot not only redeems Snape in the eyes of the readers but also adds for rich drama to the main plot.    

  • Biographical Account of Life/Coming of Age Story:

    We all love biographical/coming of age stories that capture the life of the protagonist from childhood to adulthood. In such stories, there is no defined main plot as it is made up of different subplots involving series of events and experiences that the protagonist has encountered over a period of time. For example: In Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, we see how David had a troubled childhood and how he grew up into a young man through his interactions with characters like Miss Peggotty, Aunt Betsey, Agnes Wickfield, Uriah Heep, Dora Spenlow and others. This kind of subplot technique bodes well in stories that are narrated in first person by the main character as he/she can experience only one thing at at time.

  • Parallel plot lines:

    In this subplot device, the narration of the story goes back and forth between two or more parallel plot lines which may or may not meet at the last leg of the novel. The length of each story line need not be identical, i.e., one subplot does not have to be as long and elaborate as the other. For example: In Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, the main plot involves Robert Langdon investigating the murder of Jacques Saunière that leads him to the search of The Holy Grail. There is also a parallel subplot about the Albino monk Silas, who is after the keystone to The Holy Grail. Though both Langdon and Silas have the same goal, they have parallel plot lines that do not meet until the latter half of the novel.

  • Two worlds collide:

    When lives of two or more drastically different individuals intersect on the crossroads of life, it makes for one riveting story. The subplot technique of converging two or more storylines to create an intriguing main plot is widely popular among novelists all over the world. Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men is a fine example for the ‘two worlds collide’ subplot technique. Except here, three separate worlds of criminal Anton Chigurh, war veteran Llewelyn Moss, and old sheriff Bell intersect due to a bag of drug money. This subplot technique is also great for writing romance novels involving two different characters who happen to meet by chance.  

  • Know your character better subplot:

    Some subplots are meant to add depth to the hero’s character by showing a different side to his/her persona. Flashbacks that explain the protagonist’s psyche, supporting characters’ opinion on the hero and incidents that bring out the hidden side of the hero’s character are a few popular subplots to show character development. For example: In the beginning of  Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, we get to learn a lot about Don Corleone and his form of justice through the subplot of the undertaker Amerigo Bonasera.Throughout the novel, we understand a lot about Don Corleone’s character and his way of life through secondary characters that come to him asking for help.    

It is essential to create subplots that are in sync with the genre of your story. If you are writing a murder mystery, then it makes no sense to add a ‘Mills and Boons’ type romantic subplot as it will only annoy your readers. Once you choose subplots that will fit perfectly with the nature of your novel, treat each subplot as an individual story. Write down the subplots from start to finish and then mix them up with your main plot in a logical sequence to create a taut, seamless story.  

The plot thickens only when your subplots fit perfectly with your main plot like a jigsaw puzzle. So take your time and create subplots that enhance the intrigue factor of your story!   


Ethan Miller is an online ESL tutor. Apart from his passion for teaching, he loves to write and holds a degree in creative writing. When he is not teaching or working on his book, Miller loves to blog and is a huge fan of educational technology. You can follow Ethan on Twitter and WordPress.