Plot A Month W3D4: How to Make Subplots Work


I’ve been hammering away at at plot so much that I feel like I’ve completely missed talking about subplots. And that’s bad, because subplots are important! When we think about subplots, we should break it down three ways.

  • Plot: The main focus of your story, what your character’s main goal is focused on. For example, the girl knight decides to slay the dragon.
  • Subplot: A ‘miniplot’ or sideplot in your story. For example, the girl knight who decides to slay the dragon has a bad relationship with her father, who told her she can’t be a dragon slayer. She wants to prove him wrong, but she also wants his approval. (For the romantic subplot: solving the murder leads the detective to be involved with a private eye.)

Chances are, if you’ve been writing stories for awhile, you’ve already been doing subplots without really thinking about it. But let’s say you’re still a bit lost. First, we’ll look at how to find your subplots:

  • How many goals does the main character have? SO I’M GOING TO USE AVATAR THE LAST AIRBENDER COOL COOL viewing Aang as one of our main characters, let’s look at his goals: master the elements to defeat the firelord. Those are his external goals. However, he also has to build up confidence in himself, forgive himself for his past mistakes, and find a way to defeat the firelord without killing him. That’s a lot goals, the first two internal, the second external. Those secondary goals are going to lead to some subplots: what will Aang do to build up confidence? How will he find a way to defeat the firelord without killing him?
  • How many goals do the supporting characters have? If we look at Katara, she wants to master waterbending. That’s her main external goal. She also has to confront her problems with her father and deal with her forced role as replacing her mother. Those are her internal goals. While the main plot is Defeat The Firelord, Katara also has to reach her own goals. Those are subplots, things that need to be resolved before the end of the story.
  • How do those goals relate to the main plot? You’ll notice a few things about subplots; they tend to tie into the main plot (particular with the main or head character), and they are deeply related to what makes the character a person. Aang’s past mistakes haunt him, Katara’s needs tie directly to her history and drive her goals.

Although you might already be doing subplots or have a vague idea of what they’re going to be, here are some suggestions on how to figure out your subplots:

  • What’s important to your character? Obviously besides the main plot, they’re going to have other concerns and worries. Although you’ll have external goals as subplots, a lot of them will be the internal goals. Aang’s role as the Avatar means he must overcome his failings and find his own way of resolving conflict.
  • What will stand in the way of your character getting their internal goals? Self-doubt, mistakes, and emotional confusion can make your character have a harder time changing what needs to be changed.
  • Will resolving the main plot also resolve the subplots? If not, how can they be resolved? Thinking about this will help you bring all the threads of your story together.

Hopefully if you haven’t thought about your subplots yet, you can have a decent start now. For more, check out:

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