Understanding Subplots in Literature: A Comprehensive Guide
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 10 min read


  1. What are subplots?
  2. Why subplots matter in literature
  3. How to identify subplots
  4. Subplot categories
  5. How to weave subplots into your main plot
  6. Examples of effective subplots
  7. How to develop your own subplots
  8. Common mistakes and how to avoid them
  9. Tips for managing multiple subplots

Picture this—you're on a journey, a literary adventure, if you will, with a novel in hand. The main plot has you hooked, but there are these side stories, these smaller narratives that are equally engaging. They add depth, richness, and complexity to the main plot. They're not just there to fill pages; they serve a purpose. These are what we call subplots in literature. In this guide, we're going to explore the definition of subplot, why they matter, and how to identify and create them. Let's dive in!

What are subplots?

So, what's the definition of subplot? Simply put, a subplot is a secondary story within the main plot. It's like a mini story that runs parallel to the main storyline. Imagine the main plot as a river flowing towards the ocean. The subplots are like streams that feed into this river, enriching it with their own unique stories and characters.

Subplots can serve several purposes. They can:

  • Deepen the main plot: By presenting a side story, subplots can add layers to the main plot, making it more complex and interesting.
  • Develop characters: Subplots often give minor characters a chance to shine. Through them, we can see different sides of these characters that we wouldn't otherwise see in the main plot.
  • Enhance themes: Subplots can also highlight and reinforce the themes of the main plot. They can offer a different perspective on these themes, making them more meaningful.

Remember, a good subplot isn't just a random side story. It's carefully woven into the main plot, and it plays a significant role in the overall narrative. It's like a puzzle piece that fits perfectly into the larger picture. So, next time you read a book or watch a movie, pay attention to these little narratives. They might just make your journey even more fascinating!

Why subplots matter in literature

Now that we've dug into the definition of subplot, let's chat about why these secondary narratives are important in literature. It's a bit like adding spices to a dish—technically, you could make it without them, but it wouldn't be as flavorful or exciting, would it?

First off, subplots add depth to your story. They provide additional layers of intrigue and interest, keeping your readers hooked. Just think about it: wouldn't you be more interested in a story that's a rich tapestry of multiple narratives, rather than a single, linear tale? Subplots can give your story that extra oomph.

Secondly, subplots are a great way to explore your characters in more detail. They allow you to delve into your characters' backgrounds, motivations, and relationships outside of the main plotline. This can lead to more complex, relatable characters that your readers can really connect with.

Lastly, subplots can enhance the themes and messages of your story. By exploring a theme from different angles and through different characters, you can make it resonate more strongly with your readers. It's like looking at a diamond from different sides—you can appreciate its beauty in a whole new way.

So, in a nutshell, subplots matter because they make your story richer, your characters more relatable, and your themes more impactful. And let's face it, who wouldn't want that?

How to identify subplots

Recognizing a subplot might seem like trying to find a needle in a haystack, especially if you're new to the concept. But don't fret! Once you understand what to look for, it's actually quite straightforward. So let's break down the process.

First, remember that a subplot is a secondary story that runs alongside the main plot. It's like a side dish that complements the main course. In other words, it supports the main story but has its own unique flavor.

Second, a subplot involves one or more of the same characters from the main plot, but it focuses on a different aspect of their lives. It could be a romantic interest, a family drama, a personal mystery—anything that adds another dimension to the character's journey.

Third, a subplot typically has its own beginning, middle, and end. It's a self-contained story within a story, like a mini-novel nestled within the larger novel. It starts, develops, and concludes, all while fitting snugly within the framework of the main plot.

Lastly, a subplot should enhance the main plot in some way. It could provide contrast, raise the stakes, reveal character traits, or highlight the story’s themes. It's not just there for the fun of it—it serves a purpose.

So next time you're reading a book or watching a movie, try to spot the subplot. You might be surprised at how much more you enjoy the story when you're able to pick up on these extra layers of narrative!

Subplot categories

Now that we've gone over the definition of subplot, let's delve into the different categories of subplots. Yes, you heard it right. Subplots come in different types, each adding a unique element to the story. Let's take a look at the most common ones.

Character Subplots: This type focuses on the growth or transformation of a character. It could be about a character overcoming a fear, learning a new skill, or resolving a personal issue. These subplots allow us to see the character in a new light and add depth to their persona.

Relationship Subplots: These subplots revolve around the relationships between characters. It could be a budding romance, a deteriorating friendship, or a family conflict. Relationship subplots often bring emotional resonance to the story and keep us invested in the characters' lives.

Conflict Subplots: These subplots introduce a secondary conflict in the story, separate from the main conflict. It can be an internal struggle or an external challenge. Conflict subplots often raise the stakes and add suspense to the story.

Theme Subplots: These subplots highlight the themes or messages of the story. They provide a different perspective on the theme and reinforce its significance. Theme subplots can make the story more thought-provoking and meaningful.

Remember, a good story might have a mix of these subplot categories. The key is to ensure that they all work together to enhance the main plot and make the story more engaging and satisfying for the reader.

How to weave subplots into your main plot

Now that we've understood the different categories of subplots, you might be wondering how you can incorporate them into your main plot. Well, buckle up, my friend, because we're about to dive into the art of weaving subplots into your main narrative.

First and foremost, it's important to remember that a subplot should always support and enhance your main plot. Think of it like a best supporting actor — it's there to add depth and dimension to the lead role, not to overshadow it. So, how can you achieve this?

1. Tie your subplot to your main plot: The subplot should be relevant to the main plot. It could be directly linked to the main events, or it could indirectly influence them. For example, a character subplot might involve a protagonist learning a new skill, which then proves crucial in resolving the main conflict.

2. Introduce your subplot organically: It's crucial that the subplot doesn't feel forced or out of place. It should flow naturally from the story's events and character dynamics. A subplot about a budding romance, for instance, could start with a chance encounter early in the story.

3. Keep your subplot concise: The subplot shouldn't take up too much space or distract from the main plot. It should be like a spicy side dish — enough to add flavor, but not so much that it overwhelms the main course.

4. Resolve your subplot before the main plot: To prevent the subplot from stealing the spotlight during the climax, it's a good idea to wrap it up before the main plot reaches its peak. This way, the subplot gets its moment of resolution, and the main plot gets the grand finale it deserves.

With these tips in mind, you can weave subplots into your main plot in a way that adds richness and depth to your story. And remember, a well-crafted subplot is like a secret ingredient that makes your story all the more delicious!

Examples of effective subplots

Now, let's take a look at some examples of effective subplots in literature. These examples will help you understand how subplots can enrich a story by adding depth and complexity.

1. "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee: In this classic novel, the main plot revolves around the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of attacking a white woman. A significant subplot involves the mysterious neighbor, Boo Radley. This subplot keeps readers engaged and adds an additional layer of intrigue. It also contributes to the main theme of the book, which is challenging societal prejudices.

2. "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" by J.K. Rowling: The main plot of the book revolves around the Triwizard Tournament. However, there's an important subplot involving Hermione Granger's efforts to improve conditions for house-elves. While this subplot doesn't directly affect the main story, it adds depth to Hermione's character and the world of Hogwarts, making the story more engaging.

3. "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald: The main plot is about Jay Gatsby's pursuit of Daisy Buchanan. A subplot involves the character of Myrtle Wilson and her affair with Daisy’s husband, Tom. This subplot not only adds complexity to the narrative but also mirrors and contrasts Gatsby’s pursuit of Daisy, enriching the overall theme of illusion versus reality.

These examples show how well-crafted subplots can add depth and complexity to a story, provide additional insights into characters, and enhance the main plot. When you're creating your own subplots, keep these examples in mind and think about how your subplot can enrich your story in a similar way.

How to develop your own subplots

Crafting subplots can seem like a daunting task, but with a bit of planning and creativity, you can enrich your main story with compelling secondary narratives. This section will guide you through the process of developing subplots for your own stories.

Step 1: Understand your main plot

Before you start adding subplots, you need to have a clear understanding of your main plot. What's the central conflict? What are the main themes? Remember, a good subplot will enhance your main plot, not distract from it.

Step 2: Identify your characters' secondary goals or conflicts

Often, subplots revolve around secondary goals or conflicts that your characters are dealing with. Maybe your protagonist has a strained relationship with a family member, or your antagonist has a secret hobby that they're passionate about. These can all make for interesting subplots.

Step 3: Plan how your subplot will interact with your main plot

Once you have an idea for a subplot, you need to figure out how it will fit into your main plot. Will it mirror your main plot, or contrast with it? Will it create additional obstacles for your characters, or help them in their journey? Be clear about how your subplot enhances your main plot.

Step 4: Weave your subplot into your story

Now it's time to weave your subplot into your story. Make sure it's integrated smoothly and doesn't feel like an afterthought. Remember, a good subplot should feel essential to the story, even if it's not directly related to the main plot.

Creating subplots can be a fun and rewarding part of writing. With some careful planning and creativity, you can create subplots that enrich your story and captivate your readers.

Common mistakes and how to avoid them

When developing subplots, everyone can make mistakes. But don't worry, even seasoned authors sometimes slip up. Here are some common missteps and tips on how to avoid them.

Mistake 1: Making the subplot irrelevant

The definition of subplot implies that it should supplement your main plot. If your subplot doesn't connect to the central story, it can confuse readers and make your narrative feel disjointed. To avoid this, ensure your subplot enhances or mirrors the themes and conflicts in your main plot.

Mistake 2: Overcomplicating the story with too many subplots

While having multiple subplots can enrich your story, cramming in too many can lead to a messy and confusing narrative. To avoid this, limit the number of subplots and ensure each one contributes something meaningful to the overall story.

Mistake 3: Neglecting character development in subplots

Subplots offer excellent opportunities for character development. If your characters remain static in their subplots, you miss a chance to add depth to their personalities. To avoid this, use subplots to explore different aspects of your characters and show growth or change.

Mistake 4: Wrapping up subplots too quickly or not at all

The resolution of a subplot is just as important as its introduction. If a subplot ends too abruptly or is left unresolved, it can leave readers unsatisfied. To avoid this, plan the resolution of your subplots and tie them up neatly by the end of your story.

Remember, everyone makes mistakes when they're learning. If you can learn from these common pitfalls, you'll be well on your way to mastering the art of subplots in literature.

Tips for managing multiple subplots

When you're juggling more than one subplot, things can get a bit tricky. But don't worry, I've got some practical tips to help you keep things under control.

Tip 1: Keep a Clear Focus on Your Main Plot

The main plot is your star player—it's the backbone of your story. So, no matter how many subplots you have, make sure they always support your main plot, not overshadow it. The key here is balance. Think of the definition of subplot as a supporting actor that enhances the main protagonist's performance.

Tip 2: Differentiate Your Subplots

To avoid confusing your readers, make sure each subplot is distinct. You can do this by focusing on different characters, settings, or themes in each subplot. This way, your readers can easily follow along, even when the narrative jumps from one subplot to another.

Tip 3: Use a Story Map or Outline

When managing multiple subplots, having a clear outline can be your best friend. This can help you keep track of how each subplot progresses and how it relates to the main plot. Plus, it can be a handy tool when you need to ensure all your subplots are wrapped up by the end of your story.

Tip 4: Pace Your Subplots Properly

Just like in the main plot, pacing is crucial in your subplots. If one subplot moves too quickly or too slowly compared to the others, it can throw off the rhythm of your entire story. So, make sure to pace your subplots in a way that complements the overall flow of your narrative.

Managing multiple subplots can be a challenge, but with these tips, you can navigate through your narrative smoothly and effectively. Remember, subplots are there to enrich your story, not make it complicated. So, keep things clear, concise, and connected.

If you're eager to deepen your understanding of subplots and storytelling, don't miss Jessy Moussallem's workshop, 'Scriptwriting.' This workshop will not only help you explore the complexities of subplots in literature but also provide valuable insights into crafting compelling narratives for various mediums. Take your storytelling skills to new heights with this engaging workshop!