Subplots are secondary issues or conflicts that the characters in your story have to deal with. All stories have a main conflict; in Star Wars they have to defeat the Empire, in Harry Potter they have to defeat Voldemort, in Hansel and Gretel, they have to defeat the witch. A main conflict doesn’t always have a big bad to defeat, but it’s a common theme.
What makes Harry Potter a richer and more in depth story than Hansel and Gretel is the variety and interest of its subplots. H&G’s subplot consists of the kids wanting to find their way home. That’s pretty much it. But Harry Potter? Will Harry fall in love? Will he do well on the Quiditch team? Will he find out about his parents? Will he survive the Triwizard Tournament? I could go on and on. Subplots are all those other things the main character has to deal with on the way to killing Voldemort. Without subplots, you’re writing Hansel and Gretel, and it might end up being a short book that only deals with the surface of what’s going on in your MC’s life.
Say you’ve got your main plot all figured out. You know what the character wants and what he has to do to get there. Now it’s time to work in some subplots. They may have to do with what your secondary characters want, or they may be additional issues that your MC has to figure out, or deal with.
In the project I’m working on right now, the MC thinks he’s been cursed. The main plot is finding a way to break the so-called curse. In the main subplot, the MC has to help a friend who is in danger before he can deal with his own issue. He also has to discover and define his feelings for the secondary character. And then there are the daily hurdles he has to manage because of his ‘curse.’ All these things add up to show the reader the MC’s complex life, and also let you get further inside his head. They add to the tapestry of the book and keep it from being a rectangle of one color.
As a writer, it can be all too easy to become so tunnel-visioned on the main conflict that we can forget to flesh out the world of the story. Think of your day today. Did everything go according to plan, or did it seem like everything went wrong during your main quest to go to the grocery store?
So, how do you decide what sort of subplot to add to your tale? Some simply create themselves as you delve into your story. Sometimes, you have to ask yourself some questions.
Things are going too smoothly for my MC. What else can get in her way?
I have this awesome secondary character, what does he need out of this story? How will he get it? Will his goals be at cross-purposes with the MC, or will they work together?
Does my MC have a crisis of conscious about what he needs to do to achieve his goals? Is he working against himself?
Are my MC’s friends and family on board with her goals, or working against them?
Is my MC’s environment working against him? Are there wolves? A blizzard? Rabid wombats? A dead cell phone, a closed road, a dragon?
Is there a secondary thing the MC wants or needs? A love interest? The truth about his past? Justice for a slight, real or imagined?
These are only a few of the secondary plot-lines that your MC or other character might have to deal with on his way to kill Voldemort. If you are having trouble working subplots into your writing, stop, take a breath, and ask yourself some questions.
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