Types of Subplots
Now that we know what a subplot is, let's take a look at different types of subplots and see how they work.
Unless the novel is a full-blown romance (where the plot of the book is firmly centred on the meeting and eventual happily ever after of your protagonist and their love interest), then any romance your characters experience in the novel is secondary to the main. A romantic subplot supports and complicates the main plot, but it is not the main storyline.
Example: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. The main plot is concerned with Katniss Everdeen’s survival, and the eventual overthrow of the government. Her romance with Peeta and Gale are secondary to this plot, but interweave in such a way that it is a very important feature of the narrative and both helps and hinder the goals of the main plot.
This type of subplot focuses on moments or characters that are opposed to the main character and their main plot goals. This may be a subplot that follows the antagonist and acts in direct conflict with your main plot. It could also manifest through two different characters with different (and likely opposing) goals and values, each narrating a portion of the novel as co-main characters.
Example: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. While the narrator of the novel is omniscient, she does have opinions on what Strange and Norrell are up to, and she highlights their falling out and eventual direct conflict with one another. Sections of the novel focus on each of the sorcerers in turn, while also following main antagonist The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair and his interactions with the hapless humans he preys on. In making each main character the hero of their own part of the narrative and the villain in someone else’s, Clarke amplifies the conflict when each character’s desires oppose or get in the way of another’s.
These subplots exist to explain something to the reader—either to further their understanding of the themes of the novel, to reveal an important fact or truth, or provide an opportunity to pause for a moment and allow a deeper understanding or evolution of a secondary character.
Example:The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. Both Kavalier and Clay have chapters told from their own perspectives, which either fill in the gaps of events when the characters are separate from one another or provide further understanding of the character’s morals, community, and personality.
Supporting subplots contains a narrative centred on a character whose goals and motivations match those of the main character and main plot, but in which events happen in a separate location or time frame.
Example: Shadow and Bone television series. This adaptation takes the off-screen events of Mal tracking Alina and puts them front-and-centre in a subplot thread. Mal’s aims and motivations match Alina’s (find one another, then the stag, and escape or destroy the Darkling), but don’t always happen in the same place at the same time.
Mix and Match
Once you’ve decided what kind of subplot you’d like to introduce to the book, think about how you can pull elements from the other types into it as well. If you can manage it, each scene in a story should achieve more than one thing in terms of advancing plot and conflict, character development or understanding, and the reader’s comprehension of the world the novel is operating in. Plucking out elements of another kind of subplot and sprinkling them into the one you’re working on can achieve that, if you’re subtle and mindful about it.
Think about your favorite folk or fairy tale, a version you remember reading as a child. Which characters or off-scene events could you explore to add depth and contrast to the story? What happens to Sleeping Beauty if the story follows the Evil Queen to learn more about her life and motivations? What happens to Hansel and Gretel if the story spends some time learning about the wicked witch? Is Aladdin different if you spend more time with the forty thieves?