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Mastering Subplots in Your Novel: Tips and Techniques

Mastering Subplots in Your Novel: Tips and Techniques

If you’re writing a novel, you likely have a solid grasp of your main narrative arc. However, incorporating subplots can be crucial to make your story shine truly. Conversely, you might be overwhelmed with too many subplots and wonder if they’re all necessary. Balancing, identifying, and executing multiple subplots can be a real challenge!

What is a Subplot?

A subplot is a secondary storyline in your novel that runs parallel to the main plot. These secondary storylines often converge with the main plot toward the climax. Subplots might stretch across multiple installments in a series, gradually revealing backstories or building toward a significant future reveal.

The Importance of Subplots

Why bother with subplots when focusing on the central plot could simplify things? A well-crafted subplot can:

  • Deepen characterization
  • Enhance plot complexity and satisfaction
  • Add nuance
  • Blend genres or fit a story within a sub-genre
  • Set up twists for the main plot
  • Foreshadow future events
  • Activate themes
  • Enrich world-building

Subplots are a powerful tool in a writer’s arsenal, often used to fill larger plot holes. Many writing guides, like "Save the Cat!", discuss the A story (main plot) and B and C stories (subplots), emphasizing that subplots should ultimately serve the main plot.

Determining the Number of Subplots

How many subplots should a novel have? The answer varies as many as the story requires. Some narratives might need a few subplots, while others, especially those with multiple volumes or points of view, might require many.

Common Types of Subplots

Here are a few common subplots:

  1. Romantic Subplot: Often seen in various genres, a romantic subplot involves a love interest that develops alongside the main plot. Mapping romance plot beats onto your story can enhance character development.

  2. Character-Specific Subplots: These involve secondary characters with their own story arcs that intertwine with the main plot. For instance, in "The Canterbury Tales," the overarching plot serves as a vehicle for individual character stories.

  3. Non-Linear Subplots: Flashbacks and backstory revelations can serve as subplots, providing context and depth to the main narrative. Books like "Six of Crows" use well-timed flashbacks to reveal character backstories.

  4. Stakes-Raising Subplots: Subplots that increase suspense or add a ticking clock element can enhance the plot’s tension. They can also ensure secondary characters maintain a presence and raise the stakes for the protagonist.

  5. Mirror Subplots: These parallel subplots mirror the primary conflict but differ in other ways. They can be useful for antagonist arcs, showing how characters handle similar challenges.

  6. Frame Subplots: Frames at the beginning or end of the story that set up or conclude the main plot can also function as subplots, like in "Interview With the Vampire."

Tips for Balancing Subplots

  1. Map Them Out: Define each subplot's beginning, middle, and end.
  2. Color Code: Assign colors to each subplot and track them throughout your manuscript to ensure they appear as needed.
  3. Be Honest: Determine if a subplot is necessary or merely a tangent. Consider removing it if it can be deleted without affecting the main plot.
  4. Streamline: Combine or simplify subplots if there are too many. Ensure each subplot adds value to the main story.

Understanding the types of subplots and how to balance them will help you weave them seamlessly into your narrative, enriching your novel and keeping readers engaged.

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