How to Add Subplots to Your Novel

story structure

One way to craft a compelling story is to include subplots—or secondary storylines that help create conflict and enhance your story’s theme. 

But what are subplots? How do you come up with subplots for your story? And once you do brainstorm your subplots, where should they occur in the overall narrative?

In this post, we’ll explore the various roles subplots can play, such as helping you control your story’s pace, facilitating character growth, and expressing your story’s theme. 

I’ll also walk you through a few different examples of subplots from Pride and Prejudice and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. So, let's dive in and discover how to master the art of incorporating subplots into your story!



What Are Subplots in Fiction?

Subplots are secondary storylines that receive less emphasis (and page time) than the main plot. They’re a formalized way to show that your protagonist’s life is complicated and that their ability to accomplish their goal will be affected by everything around them.

Subplots can help you:

  • Control the pacing of your story by adding conflict
  • Provide opportunities for your characters to grow and change
  • Contradict or compliment your story’s theme
  • Reveal additional information to your characters or to the reader
  • Change the ‘mood’ or ‘tone’ of any part of your story
  • Add texture, depth, and richness to your story

But the main purpose of any subplot in a novel is to enhance the main theme and conflict of the story. As such, your subplots will most likely have one of these three relationships to your story’s main plot:

#1. Subplots can be used to contradict your story's theme

Subplots that contradict your story’s theme help you infuse your story with dramatic irony. For example, if you’re writing a love story with a positive ending for the main couple that expresses a version of the theme "love wins"—and if this feels too “sweet” or too “easy” for the story you want to tell, you can layer in a subplot that revolves around two other characters whose relationship ends negatively. In this instance, your subplot will contradict the main plot, making the overall story more complex and ironic.

#2. Subplots can be used to echo your story's theme 

Subplots that complement your story’s theme can help strengthen and reinforce your overall message. For example, if you’re writing an action-adventure story and the theme has something to do with how “working together is the key to survival,” you can include a subplot where a secondary character must work with another character (your protagonist or a different secondary character) to survive a smaller part of the overall plot. If your subplot expresses the same theme as your main plot but in a different (perhaps unusual or unlikely way), this creates variations on your theme that will strengthen and reinforce your story's overall message. For example, how many ways can love win? How many ways can you show justice being served?

#3. Subplots can complicate the main plot by adding conflict

These subplots can help you add dimension to your characters, create comic or romantic relief from an otherwise tense or violent story, and (primarily) make life more difficult for your protagonist. For example, if you’re writing a thriller with a romantic subplot, this can add conflict to the main plot by upping the stakes. Now that your protagonist has a love interest, they’ll likely worry about their safety (in addition to their own) as they work to bring down the antagonist. When writing this type of subplot, be careful not to let it overtake your main story or draw the reader’s attention away from your protagonist—it’s easy to get carried away with these types of subplots.

If your subplot doesn't contradict your theme, show variations of your theme, or add conflict to the main plot—if it simply runs alongside your main plot—it’ll split your story down the middle and ruin its effect on readers.

The relationship between all the elements of your story is what holds it together and gives it a sense of unity. If the audience doesn't feel this sense of unity, they will likely disengage from your story and never finish it.


Where Do Subplots Usually Occur?

Subplots typically come into play at the start of the second act (or at the start of the middle section of your story). 

They help keep things moving forward by raising new story questions, adding conflict to the main storyline, and putting pressure on your protagonist to grow and change.

However, subplots can also start and develop right alongside your primary plotline in act one (or in the begging section of your story).

There’s no hard and fast rule about where subplots need to begin and end, but looking near the end of act one or the beginning of act two is a good place to start.

In most cases, subplots will resolve in the reverse order of importance. So, for example, if you have your most important subplot starting in act one and your least important subplot starting in act two, you’d most likely want to resolve your less important subplot before your most important subplot.

This isn’t a hard and fast rule either, but it’s what I’ve seen work best both in published novels as well as work-in-progress drafts.


How to Brainstorm Subplots For Your Story

Subplots are mini-plots, but they tend to revolve around your characters. 

They are used to drive home your story’s theme, and this is often best expressed via the change your protagonist and/or your secondary characters go through.

To find subplots within your existing story idea, start by answering these two questions:

  • Can any secondary characters represent an aspect of my theme?
  • Can any of my secondary characters contribute to the central conflict?

Both of these questions will help you make sure that your secondary character is connected to your global story—and that they have an impact on your protagonist.

Subplot Example: Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice

As an example, let’s look at Lydia Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Lydia is described as being a reckless and impulsive flirt. She likes attention, especially from attractive men like Mr. Wickham.

When Lydia runs off with Mr. Wickham, she doesn’t think about the consequences of her actions—for herself or for her sisters. Lydia’s behavior puts her sisters’ relationships in jeopardy, but it ultimately helps reunites the two central characters, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. 

So, the “Lydia subplot” is both genre and theme appropriate (it touches on love, intimacy, and relationships—albeit in a cautionary way) and adds to the central conflict.

Subplot Example: Hagrid in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Another great subplot example involves Hagrid from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Hagrid is the half-giant and half-human gamekeeper and Keeper of Keys at Hogwarts, and he loves animals. 

When Harry, Ron, and Hermione learn that Hagrid’s hatching an illegal dragon in his hut, this complicates things. Now, the trio must help Hagrid keep his baby dragon a secret and try to uncover the truth about Nicolas Flamel and the Sorcerer’s Stone, all while learning magic and dodging school bullies like Malfoy. No big deal, right?

Hagrid’s subplot is both genre and theme appropriate (it puts Harry in danger—and shows him that adults don’t always make the best decisions), and it adds to the central conflict.


How Many Subplots Should Your Story Have?

There’s no rule about the number of subplots that will work for any story. 

However, most stories have 2-3 subplots that center around important secondary characters and that work to increase the conflict.

If you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, you might have room for more than 2-3 subplots, but make sure they serve a purpose in your story before adding too many.

Final Thoughts

So, hopefully, you can see how subplots are an invaluable tool for crafting a compelling story. By incorporating secondary storylines that add conflict, deepen characterization, and enhance the theme, you can create a multi-layered story that captivates readers. 

Keep in mind that when adding subplots to your story, it’s going to take time to layer them into your main plot. Don’t expect to get it “perfect” right out of the gate. Instead, use the principles in this article to help you brainstorm your subplots and make sure that they contribute to your global story. Have fun!

Savannah is a developmental editor and book coach who helps fiction authors write, edit, and publish stories that work. She also hosts the top-rated Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast full of actionable advice that you can put into practice right away. Click here to learn more →