31 Days of NaNoWriMo Prep: Day 17 – How Do I Write Interesting Subplots?

Hello, and welcome to Day 17 of “31 Days of NaNoWriMo Prep”! Today’s topic is writing interesting subplots, something I know many writers tend to struggle with. If that’s the case for you, then keep reading. If you’ve missed out on the previous sixteen posts in this series, that’s okay! You can catch up here, or watch the corresponding YouTube videos here.

If you’ve never heard the term “subplot” before, or if you have but just don’t know what it means, don’t worry. I gotchu, fam. A subplot is a plot that’s secondary to the main plot of the novel. So, if your main plot is a quest to find a lost artifact, then your subplots may be the budding of a romance or friendship, or the personal growth of your main character, or an attempt to solve some sort of mystery, or all of these. Secondary and/or minor characters can also have their own plots, which, of course, become subplots in the grand scheme of your novel.

“But why do I need a subplot?” you ask. “My plot is super interesting all on its own.” Well, subplots are used to fill the story out and make it more dimensional. If you were to write a novel (or novella or short story) with only your main plot and nothing else, it would be… Well, to put it bluntly, it would be super boring. In fact, it’s almost impossible to write a story without at least one subplot. If your main plot is all about a character’s personal growth, how can they grow without something going on in the background to push them forward and help them grow? Or if your main plot is all about your characters going on a quest, what’s going to hold the story together in the moments when they aren’t questing? I mean, your characters can’t quest 24/7. Even J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series took breaks from questing. Look at it this way: Is there only one thing in your life that takes up your attention, or are you focused on many things? This same logic works for your protagonists.

Now, choosing your subplots may or may not come easily, depending on your novel. I know that for my novel, The Forbidden Prophecy, the subplots sort of supplied themselves. There were certain events I knew needed to happen and tropes I knew I wanted to play with that required certain subplots to exist, so I didn’t have to work too hard to come up with them. I know that this isn’t the case for every book, though, so I have some tips for figuring out what subplots you should include in your novel.

1.) Consider the main plot.

It’s like my examples from earlier, about how a character can’t grow without something to push them toward their growth, or how your novel can’t just be about questing all the time. Try to figure out what subplots your novel needs in order to even work. If you need a subplot for character growth, consider one revolving around some kind of family or friend drama. This drama could range from petty fights to the death of a character, depending on the type of growth your protagonist needs. And, I mean, that’s just one example. There’s tons of different subplots that you could explore.

2.) Consider your favorite tropes.

Yes, yes, tropes are bad. I know. Except… I mean, they’re tropes for a reason, right? And admit it, you’ve got a guilty pleasure trope that you love. When you pick up a book and see that it contains this trope, you throw your money at the cashier and flee to a nice quiet place to read your trope in peace. We all have one. It’s okay. No shame. Mine is the bad boy with a good heart. I melt for that asshole every time. So if you have a trope that you love, and you think it could work in your novel, then go for it. Sure, some people might get huffy when they pick up your book and find yet another subplot revolving around a girl falling for the bad boy, but there’ll also be people who buy your book specifically because it contains that subplot. In the end, you’ve got to do what makes you happy, and hopefully it’ll make others happy, too.

3.) Consider what could add drama to your story.

Subplots are meant to create intrigue on top of your main plot, so if there’s anything you think could add a little something extra to your story, add it in. Obviously it should make sense in the context of the story–don’t add a murder mystery into your YA contemporary romance unless you really think it makes sense to do so–but pretty much anything’s game. I mean, Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy series was all about a bad-ass Dhampir girl fighting evil, undead creatures of the night, but there was also romance and friendship dynamics and mean girl drama, and it all worked together perfectly in a way that created a very interesting and unique story.

So, once you’ve chosen your subplots, how do you make them interesting? One piece of advice I can give you is to give them as much attention as your main plot when outlining your novel. If you’re just throwing random bits of subplot into your story without any rhyme or reason, your readers will be able to tell, especially if it isn’t seamless. Planning ahead and interweaving your main plot and subplots is important.

Your subplots also need to have exposition, rising action, a climax, falling action, and a resolution, just like your main plot. They are plots, after all, even if they aren’t the most important plots in your story. If you don’t build them up and then bring them to a satisfying conclusion, your reader will be left wondering why you even bothered to put them into your story in the first place. Why introduce a mean girl element if you weren’t actually planning on going anywhere with it? Why tease a romantic subplot and then not follow through? These kinds of things will frustrate your readers, and will definitely turn them off of your novel and any future novels you may write.

However, you shouldn’t make the subplot as important as (or more important than) the main plot. If your novel is marketed as high fantasy and you spend 80% of the book focusing on a love triangle, your reader is not going to be happy with you. At that point, you’d be better off viewing the love triangle as the main plot and the fantasy components as subplot, marketing your novel as romance with high fantasy elements. Subplots need to be in the background, working to move the story forward but never taking up the spotlight, at least for long. They can have their moments to shine, sure, but in the end, if you’re marketing your book as something, that something had better be front and center for a good chunk of the novel.

The main thing that really makes subplots interesting, though, is when they work together with the main plot to build the story toward the climax. The rising action of the subplots need to play off of the rising action of the main plot, so that, at the climax, everything comes to a head. The best way I can describe this is by comparing it to fireworks. When you reach the main climax of your novel, the subplots need to reach their climaxes, too, so that it’s like a bunch of little fireworks are going off, one right after another, building the tension even more until BOOM! The big one goes off. Getting this right may take a few tries, but trust me, you’ll figure it out eventually.

Speaking of climaxes, if you’re interested in learning how to write a gripping one, then you should check back in tomorrow for Day 18 of “31 Days of NaNoWriMo Prep”! It’s going to be a lesson you definitely won’t want to miss.

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