Friday, June 24, 2011

Oh, What a Tangled Web We Weave: Crafting Subplots

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

We spend a lot of time focusing on our core conflict, and rightly so since that's what driving our novels. But what about the subplots? We hope those pesky side stories will deepen our novels, but sometimes they drag them to dark alleys to bang them over the head.When folks are having plot problems, it's not uncommon for those problems to be with the subplots.

Subplots Rule!
With my first novel, the subplots ruled. Every time I got a cool idea for a character, no matter how important they were, I ran with it. That's probably why I had eleven POVs and couldn't tell you what the dang book was about.

The next novel, I kept a tight leash on the subplots. The book was pretty flat, because nothing beyond the main story ever happened to shake things up.

Finally, I found a balance that worked for me. Core external conflict, core internal conflict, handful of subplots.

But there's a catch...

They all have to be connected.

The core conflict is the bulk of my story. Protag needs X, and will do anything to get X. But constantly reading about, let's say, Bob being chased by zombies, is pretty boring after a while. We're  all writers here. We know how stories go. We know that Bob is going to be thwarted by zombies at every turn until the end of the book, where he'll pull something out of his, um, hat and save the day. (or get eaten if that's the kind of story you're writing). Your plot will look like this:

Bob's core conflict: Zombies are trying to eat him and everyone around him.

His goal: To survive and kill off the zombies.


What makes this so yawn worthy is that there's not a lot of inherent conflict within either of those two statements. You look at them and you can see pretty much all there is to the kinds of troubles Bob will encounter. Details may change, but really, how many scenes can you really write with Bob barely getting away from being eaten?

I need subplots to spice this up so it isn't as predictable what will happen. Even better, since this situation is more premise than plot (a common problem) I need a story to fit inside this premise. What is happening to Bob that is made harder by this zombie situation?

I could give Bob another threat to deal with, say crazed renegade bikers taking advantage of the chaos, who are also trying to kill him, but two "trying to kill you" threats are basically the same thing. The stakes are still the same, and the story is still going to follow the same path as with the zombies. There's nothing new to offer the reader in terms of a problem to overcome.

What I need to do, is give Bob a problem that has totally different stakes than getting eaten. He has to risk something else that matters to him. End of the world stories need a little romance, so let's give him Jane.

Jane is the love if his life, but he's been afraid to tell her that. They're running from zombies together, and he's working up the courage to profess his love for her. Now he has something beyond himself at stake, and bad things could happen to either character. Worrying about Jane is an additional worry for Bob. But what might happen to Bob can easily still happen to Jane, so the stakes are only marginally raised. We need a different threat. A personal threat, since the other threats are all impersonal. (Crazy as that sounds since "being eaten" is pretty personal. But no reader is going to really think Bob will get eaten)

Let's say Bob is married. His wife Sally is also running from the zombies, and she wouldn't be too happy to hear he's in love with another woman. So Bob has three major problems, and they're connected. Save themselves from zombies, keep his wife from finding out he's in love with Jane, and profess his love for Jane and win her for himself.

Chances are you've jumped ahead and can see several things that can go wrong in this conflict. You see the inherent dangers and problems that were missing in the first plot statements. There are all kinds of things I can do to these folks to advance the plot. But there's still something missing.

Internal conflict. 

Bob needs something to cause him emotional turmoil as he runs from zombies and struggles with his feelings for Jane. Besides the zombies, what's standing in the way of his happiness? Sally. If there was no Sally, he could live happily ever after with Jane.

Of course, I probably don't want to have Bob plotting to kill off his wife, since I want readers to like Bob and want to see him win. But if Sally is an unlikable character, and we see a history between Sally and Bob that shows this is a doomed relationship, and we see how Bob really does belong with Jane, then readers will still root for Bob. Especially if Sally is a threat to their survival. If she's an obstacle to one goal (his happiness) why not make her a threat to the other? (his survival)

All of this so far has been set up. I've created a situation, but there's nothing more than a basic plot with some conflicts to play with. External conflicts are pretty straightforward, and though the details change, readers know more or less how the events will play out. But internal conflicts are different. (And why they're so much fun) People do all kinds of dumb things and can make mistakes and bad choices due to their emotions. This is the area where I can keep the reader off balance, because they won't know what Bob is going to do. All I need is a trigger to set off the struggle. A subplot.

Back to Sally...

What if early on, Sally has a close call and is almost caught by the zombies. Jane saves her, but Bob realizes if anything bad happens to Sally, he can be with Jane. Bob now has a moral struggle to make every time something goes wrong. Does he risk himself or Jane to save Sally? Can he be that cold to let Sally die? How far is Bob willing to go to be with Jane? How far will he go to survive? It's a way to let him plot against his wife without actually doing it. It's a situation I bet readers could relate to.

Now I have external problems and internal conflicts.

Bob's goal: Survive the zombies and find a way to be with Jane that doesn't involve him letting his wife die, even though he kinda wants to.

Taking this basic set up, what other subplots can I weave in? I don't want to just add anything, because that would dilute the core problems I have going now. I want to add things that put pressure on what Bob already wants and faces. He doesn't want to be a bad guy and kill his wife, so he struggles with the moral line between protecting her and not trying as hard to save her. Tough choices have to be made to survive a zombie apocalypse, but when does that become selfish and opportunistic? I want to shove him toward the dark side and see if he crosses the line. So what if...

Food is running out and there's not enough for all three (getting rid if Sally increases their chance of survival)

Sally gets injured and the only close hospital is surrounded by zombies (slows them down, hurts their chances for survival)

Jane confesses she loves him too, and wants him to run off with her in the middle of the night (gives him a reason to leave, and adds guilt for wanting to)

Sally and Jane are secretly in cahoots to get rid of Bob (a twist readers might not see coming)

Jane gets turned into a zombie and Bob has to sneak into the bad guy's lab for the cure.

Whoa, what? (see how I snuck that in there?)

The lab idea is a good example of how a subplot can waylay your plot. I never once mentioned any secret lab or bad guy, and nothing about a cure for zombification. This comes out of the blue and doesn't fit what I've been developing. It's a cool idea, and it does put Bob and Jane at risk, provide great opportunities to get rid of Sally, and offer a high stakes goal for Bob, but does it fit the core conflicts? Nope. There's no connection.

If I really wanted this subplot, then I'd have to go back to the beginning and add it in.

Someone worked at the lab that has the cure, and knows how to get inside. I could make it Bob, but that doesn't add any conflict to the existing problem. Jane is already a zombie, so she's in no position to help, and there's no additional conflict there either. It has to be Sally, because then Bob would have to use his wife's knowledge of the lab to get inside and save Jane. If Sally finds out he loves Jane, she could refuse to help him. Then Bob would be forced into another tough spot. Would he force Sally to help, or go off on his own?

Tune in next time, for As the Zombies Moan...

Okay, not really, but hopefully this macabre little story has shed some insight on how to weave plots and subplots to strengthen and deepen a story. If not, blame the zombies. They ate my...


What types of subplots are you juggling? What connections do you look for?

More articles on plots and subplots:
Juggling subplots
Plotting with layers 
Goals, conflicts, stakes, and why you need all three
When plots go astray
Defining story arcs


  1. Hahahahaha, I love the zombies storyline because I just read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies :) lol. Thanks for this post Janice. It really helped in terms of the things to think about when crafting a subplot and a great example of how they come together. Incredibly helpful, as usual :)

  2. Glad I could help. :) I need to get that PPZ book. I keep hearing about it.

  3. As my current WIP edges to a close, I've worked so hard at getting that main conflict to shine. Thank you for the reminder about subplots. Their on the revising list.

  4. Enjoyable post, and a good demonstration of how to plot and add subplots! Nice. ;o)

  5. I think it's amazing credit to you how you created a plot like that almost seamlessly. I sort of want to read that book now too. You say that the subplots have to work with the story, but what about in a series of books? What may seem useless in the first book is actually crucial in the last book.

  6. Barbara: Anytime :) It'll probably be a lot easier now that you have the main plot done.

    Carol: Thanks!

    Alex: One day I'll have to write Bob and the Zombies. It might only be a PDF download for the blog, but I've done so much with those guys I feel they need their story told.

    For series, it's okay to have some things that aren't resolved or seem unconnected, as long as they don't read like they ought to be part of the story. (does that make sense?) Like if you have a whole subplot about something that is never resolved or has no bearing on the core conflict at all, readers are probably going to wonder why the heck it was there. But if somewhere in that subplot, something connects to that book, you're usually fine. There can be more to it (and hints dropped) but it should feel like it belongs in the story.

  7. Ooh -- evil subject. For years, I could not get subplots into anything I wrote. They simply would not evolve naturally into the story at all. It wasn't that I wasn't seeing them -- they were literally not there. I always start the story way too late, and it turned out that was keeping subplots out of the story. Once I fixed that (lots of pain, suffering, anguish, brain melting), two came in.

    Like my story, my subplots are also plot-driven, which also made it difficult to get at the original problem of getting them into the story. People often define it by the character relationships, and I have people jockeying for power and plotting evil deeds. I don't really think of the connections in the way you describe. It's more of an overall view of the entire story and how everything relates to everything else. Though, admittedly, one of the major downsides to this is if I have to make what seems to be a small change early on, it affects so many of the relationships that it can trigger a major revision.

  8. Unfortunately, I don’t consciously write with sub plots in mind. I let them occur naturally, and in later drafts I work to highlight those story lines.

    I look for lies, love interests, hidden agendas and all-around-bad-human-nature.

    I love watching the dark getting pulled down all around me, but I love seeing the light over taking the dark much more in the end.

  9. Wonderful setup Janice!

    I had a thought as I was reading this that may add another twist. What if (because all writers love these two words) Sally is redeemable? Sally saves Jane and the two become friends. Jane is now torn in her love for Bob. Sally realizes the love Bob has for Jane and starts to take risks. Bob may want her out of the way but he still loved her at one point so he is driven to save her. Jane owes her life to Sally and does the same. Now all three end up twisted into a struggle to survive not just the zombies but also the love triangle.

    I know this was just an exercise but thought I would share the twist it inspired.

    Thanks for the great post :)

  10. WOW! Thanks for the great post Janice. I can't believe how easy you made this look! This example really demonstrates how a good subplot pushes the story forward in a natural way. I am in the early stages of my first YA. You've inspired me to put more effort into the subplot now. Oh the possibilities!

  11. Fantastic! Great look at how to integrate subplots into the story.

  12. Linda: What I've found works well is to connect the subplots to the inner conflict. Let the protag face something that's needed for the external plot, but that conflicts with the internal struggle. That allows you to throw tough problems in your protag's way as they work through the plot, and it's all connected.

    Jeff: "Lies, love interests and hidden agendas." Love that. That's really a great summary of some good subplot material.

    Gene: Oh, that's awesome. Redeeming Sally. If I ever write this story I so have to do that :) Thanks!

    Marti: Thanks, I'm glad it clicked with you. My early struggles with subplots came from trying to add more to the story, not develop what I had. Once I changed focus, it was so much easier. And better!

    Jami: Thanks!

  13. This was brilliant. I love how you took a simple idea and added more simple ideas to clearly make the point of how subplots work and don't work. I really appreciate it and hope I can get back to my drawing board and work in some clever subplots that work well with my story.