Subplots are plots in a story that are separate from the main plot. They add character development and get the reader more invested in the story. Subplots are what can make your readers cry like babies, or punch the air in victory.
Subplots give the reader more connection to the story and characters because they have a more relatable plot. For example, a subplot could be the main character’s mom dying, trying to keep up with school grades, pursuing a romantic relationship with somebody, etc. These plots impact the main character, not just physically, but emotionally. This allows the reader to empathize with them, which means they will be more invested in how the main plot works out for them.
For example, let’s take two stories. Story 1: A young woman is trying her hardest to get into university and eventually gets accepted for a school overseas. Story 2: A young woman is trying her hardest to get into university, all while taking care of her sick mother, and struggles with her decision when she gets accepted to a school overseas. Which story would you read? Readers pick up Story 1, and say “So what?”. There’s no reason they should care about the main character. Story 2, however, makes the character more relatable and human. The reader will sympathize with their struggle, because they know what it’s like to worry about somebody.
This may be a secondary plot, but be careful not to forget about it. It deserves as much attention as the main plot. Be consistent with it (don’t completely forget about it for half of the book) and don’t leave it unresolved (readers will feel they wasted their time/investment).
Subplots do wonders for character development. They show human and emotional sides of your character that the reader wouldn’t have seen in the main plot. For example, say the main plot is defeating a villain, but you also have a subplot with the main character’s best friend (their friendship). Now, when the friend is taken by the villain, the reader is going to care more about taking down the villain, because they care about the friend. They will also connect more with the main character, because this friendship has shown traits about the character that they wouldn’t have seen (kindness, loyalty, playfulness, etc.). Now, when the friend is taken, the stakes are raised for the main character. They have a weakness, they’re scared for their friend, and the reader empathizes with this.
Without subplots, your main character might just seem like a robot trying to accomplish a task. There is no reason for the reader to care about them or their goal. For example, let’s take another two stories. Story 1: A man struggles to gain movement back after a car accident and eventually succeeds. Story 2: A man struggles to gain movement back after a car accident and can do very little to take care of or play with his son, but keeps pushing forward for his son, and eventually succeeds. In Story 1, what can we say about the main character? We don’t really know anything about their character, their personality. In Story 2, we can gather that he is strong, persistent, loving, etc. He feels like a person and we respect him for pushing forward. With just this one subplot, this main character has become somebody the reader can care about, somebody 3-D.
Subplots make the main character feel human, and help to make the main plot more personal.
Subplots make your story more complex and compelling, and your story should be complex. Life is complex. People are complex. If your goal was to try to get an A on the exam, would nothing else be going on in your life? Of course there would be stuff going on. Life doesn’t pause for your main character because they have a goal to accomplish.
As said before, you need subplots to get emotion and investment from the reader. Also, for my fellow underwriters, you could probably use the extra word-count.
This being said, you shouldn’t have so many subplots that the main plot is completely overwhelmed. If the reader has so many subplots to keep track of that they can’t remember what’s what, then you probably need to cut some out. Beta testing will help you to identify if your story has too much or too little going on.
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With all of this in mind, go out and write your masterpiece!