Integrating Subplots Into Your Narrative Structure

January 30, 2022

This post is the fifth in a series on subplots

Now that you've figured out what kind of subplot you’ll be writing, and who will be the star and/or narrator of it, let’s look at the technical aspects of how to integrate your subplot(s) into the structure of your main plot. The methods I’m going to highlight here are by no means the only way to do it, but they are the most popular.

Pendulum

Alternating between two or more points of view (POV) in large sections across a shared narrative is one of the easiest ways to insert a subplot. Generally this is done by dedicating one chapter to one character’s POV, and then switching to another POV in the next chapter. The switch can also happen mid-chapter, after a scene is described from one POV, and then (after a scene break), the narrative picks up with another perspective. The assumption here is that both narrating characters are participating in the same plot points and scenes together, possibly offering competing interpretations of events or filling in details missing from one perspective through the other.

Be wary of accidentally head-hopping while doing this. Never swap from one POV to another without some sort of visual indication that you’ve done so on the page. Switching narrators pr POV mid-scene, or even mid-paragraph is confusing for the reader.

Parallel

Like with a Pendulum Subplot, Parallel Subplots alternate between the POVs of two or more characters. However, in this case, these characters are rarely involved in the same scenes or plot points together. Their narratives are separate but running alongside one another, informing one another without the characters interacting, until they finally merge together like a multi-highway interchange when required by the plot.

Weaving

If you prefer to stick to one POV, you can still weave different moments and references to different subplots into your narrative, like coloured reeds in a basket. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, this is most easily done when each scene furthers more than one plot or character arc and your clues and references and explanations are woven into your scene organically and naturally. Weaving works best when all the subplots are very closely tied with the main plot and are experienced simultaneously by the main character.

Sandwich

Sandwich subplots are pretty much the opposite of Weaving. In this case, you separate out the different subplots, stick one chunk of a subplot at the front of the book in a prologue, and place another chunk at the end in an epilogue. This technique can be used for multiple POVs, or a single one.

Consecutive

In this method, you’ll focus on one set of characters with their own subplot and POV, and then shift to a different set of characters, with their separate subplot and POV. Eventually the plots come together and resolve as one in the end. Consecutive Subplots are similar to Parallel Subplots, but in this version you don’t alternate back and forth between the POVs. Instead, you drop everything relating to the first plot all at once, and once you’ve reached the end of that plotline, you start back at the beginning and start again, this time following the second plot to its natural end.

A good example of this method is The Two Towers, by J. R. R. Tolkien. If you’ve read the book, you know that after the Fellowship splits up, the novel follows Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn separately from Frodo, Sam and Gollum, and then separate again from Merry, Pippin and Gandalf. If you watch the film adaptation, however, you’ll see how skillfully Jackson, Walsh and Boyens turned that same narrative into a Parallel Subplot Structure.

No matter what method you chose to use, make sure above all that you resolve each separate storyline satisfactorily and tie them together at the end of the novel, if it’s appropriate. Subplots should always tie-into, support, and expand the main plot.

Activity

Pick a favorite children's story, folk-, or fairy tale. Consider the story from the villain's POV. Now, map out the story with the villain's story as a subplot, using each of the methods listed above. How does the story or focus change when you present it as a Parallel Subplot vs a Consecutive one? How do your main plot objectives change when the villain's version is woven in? Do you think of the story differently when it is sandwiched inside the villain's version? Play around with different options to see where they offer opportunities to explore your main plot in new ways.