Last week, I posted on the “Story Arc” and its parts and what each of those parts does to make up the whole that is a novel. However, as with all other aspects of writing, the story arc is rarely one concrete, black and white rule. One reader asked me in the comments, for example: what about the story arc of an entire series? Does each book make up a part of that arc, while encompassing all parts of that same arc within itself as a standalone novel? A good question, but not one that we’re addressing in depth today. Rather, this point got me to thinking not about the grand, reaching plots of multi-book series, but of the miniscule little plots-within-plots we weave into our stories. How many times does the story arc get repeated within a novel? Within a chapter, even? This is where sub-plots come in to create the layers in a good story, novel, or series—regardless of the project’s size.
The Importance of Sub-Plots
The sub-plot comes in many forms but is often represented as an issue that may seem less important than the overall story arc, while actually shaping the characters further through their thoughts, actions, and reactions. Sub-plots act as catalysts for major plots, whether they’re subtly helping them along or outright lighting the proverbial spark with the blast of a cannon.
Think about your favorite novel. Can you identify its sub-plot(s)? Can you imagine what it would be like without it? For argument’s sake, and to choose an example many should be familiar with, let’s think about The Hunger Games trilogy. I’ll do my best to avoid any spoilers that shouldn’t be common knowledge by now.
Arguably, a major sub-plot in The Hunger Games is Katniss’s relationship with Peeta. If you’ve read the books or even watched the movies, you’ll know they would be extremely different had the two tributes not been staged as an ill-fated couple and didn’t eventually fall in love for real. If Katniss had zero feelings for Peeta, she would have done what she could to survive and end it there. Maybe she would have felt some general remorse at yet another human being dying in the games—but the book would have essentially read “she volunteered, she survived, the end.” Boring? You bet. But, instead, Katniss has quite intricate and confusing feelings for Peeta—and those feelings drive on most of her actions throughout the three novels and, in many ways, reveal to the reader who she is as a person.
Of course, identifying a sub-plot and its importance can be really tricky, as the layers of a good story often blend into one another. To go back to our reader’s point on series plots vs. standalone plots, one can argue that while Katniss’s survival in The Hunger Games is the main plot of book one, it’s a mere sub-plot and/or stage of the major plot in the overall series, in which the main plot is the overthrow of the Panem government.
Creating and Integrating Sub-Plots
So when you’re writing, how do you pick your story apart and understand what its plot and sub-plots are? Though you ultimately want them to meld together to make that layered, tangible story, you need to identify the pieces first.
As I said in my post on story arcs, this doesn’t mean that pantsers must suddenly become outliners. If you’re the type of writer who works best just writing without thinking too much into the parts that make up the whole, then do that—just be sure to address these parts during revisions and ensure they all make sense and flow smoothly. Either way, when creating a sub-plot, make sure you can answer “yes” to the following questions:
- Does this have relevance to the ultimate plot and outcome of the story?
- Does this portray my characters in the way I want to portray them? – Author’s note: if your characters are particularly unruly, you may not have a choice here!
- Will this help my readers understand the character(s)/plot better?
- Does this sub-plot help further the theme, or message, of my story?
If you answer no to any of them, you might need to do some reworking. Try this exercise if you’re having trouble, either before or after your draft is written:
Outline each sub-plot on a separate sheet of paper. Assign a color to each sub-plot with a colored pencil or marker and mark off the areas where the subplots intersect on each sheet with the appropriate colors. Then, trace the plot’s paths: are there any areas where they may fall off or not connect correctly? Do they cause conflicting actions in the characters or reveal any plot holes that need filling?
Overall, integrating a sub-plot into your story shouldn’t be too difficult, as it should be an integral part to the story itself. There will always be kinks to work out in the first draft, but if you’re finding it exceptionally hard to drive the story forward through its smaller conflicts, there may be a bigger problem with your sub-plot idea than transitional trouble. To keep your sub-plots natural and genuine, always make sure to steer clear of clichés and sub-plotting for sub-plotting’s sake.
Are you aware of your sub-plots, or do they just appear? Do you plan them out ahead of time? Do you have a hard time separating them from the overall story arc? Let us know in the comments below!