How to Add a Subplot (Even When You Think You’re Done)
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This month on Our Write Side, we’re exploring when “enough is enough,” but also those times when you
need to add a little bit more. In my last post, we explored Blake Snyder’s 15 beats you need to give your overall story and main character an interesting and satisfying arc you readers will enjoy. In this article, we’ll be zooming in on my journey of adding a subplot. Snyder’s advice can help you decide if your story needs more, fewer, or something a little bit different.
Getting and Interpreting Feedback
For many writers, sharing what they’ve done is an incredibly difficult step. Getting over the hump and putting yourself out there is hard, however it’s also vital to the writing and editing process.
But let’s be clear – all feedback is good, but not all feedback is created equal. I once worked on a manuscript as an editor, and the author had given her story to anyone who was willing to read it. This is a fine strategy, but she wasn’t discerning about what she did with their comments. Every time someone gave her suggestions, she changed the manuscript. And not always for the better. When I gave her my take as a developmental editor, she told me that many of the things I suggested were part of the original manuscript. Her gut was right in many cases, no matter what her readers said.
It’s your responsibility to decide who to share your work with, but more importantly, what to do with their comments. This may take the form of a writing partner or alpha reader who helps shape the story from an early stage. This can be great for figuring out where you need to add or strengthen a subplot as the story is growing. If you are at the point where you’ve been through several drafts, then the people reading the (more or less) completed manuscript are beta readers.
After I went through rewriting No Rest for the Wicked as a novel rather than a pair of novellas, I gave the manuscript to some beta readers. At this stage, it was roughly 87,000 words long. This is a nice length for a novel, so I didn’t expect to need to add more. My main concern at that point was whether the two halves felt like a coherent whole. I was feeling pretty spiffy at this point and figured it was just a matter of getting the inevitable praise back from my betas before starting the querying process. Unfortunately for my ego, that wasn’t the case.
(From Oliver, 1968)
Something Was Missing…
I gave No Rest for the Wicked to several family members, both mine and my husband’s family. Several of my in-laws of different generations took a look and all really liked it. They didn’t have any substantive feedback to share. So that felt great, but it turns out it wasn’t what the book needed in order to become its best version. It’s not because they didn’t want to help, they just weren’t necessarily the right type of readers.
My family, on the other hand, had more to say. This may have had to do with a certain comfort level when it came to giving me their opinions. However, I also knew from the get-go that I was going to get a different type of feedback from my mother and my brother’s wife just because of who they are and how they would approach the work. My mom doesn’t really do fantasy, but she is a professional writer and editor in her own right. My sister-in-law is an avid reader of various genres and we work together, so she has plenty of experience editing my non-fiction work.
They both identified the same stretch of the text as being problematic. One said it “dragged” while the other said it went too fast, which was difficult to interpret at first. My first reaction, as it is for so many writers, was to think they that must be wrong because their feedback sounded like it was conflicting. Then, I realized that what they were both saying is that they wanted more out of that section.
But what did “more” even mean? One of them gave me the specific note of asking “what if there was a ‘side quest’ here?” and I realized she was right. I needed to add a subplot.
What is a Subplot and When Should You Add One?
“Sub” means “under”, so a subplot is a plotline of your book that occurs underneath the main events of your story. Some books and genres get by just fine with only one plot. This is especially true if you are writing for a younger audience and you are worried about them getting lost. Or, if you have an extremely intricate main plot, you may be worried about piling too much on even an adult reader.
However, chances are you will need more than one thing going on within a story to hit all of the beats and make your story feel full. At minimum, Blake Snyder suggests the “B Story” in his beat sheet, which is the relationship that is the most important to the protagonist and often carries the theme of the story. Romantic subplots are extremely common across genres, but that isn’t the only type of relationship that can play a starring role in a subplot. In a romance, the subplots could be basically anything else that is happening the frames the romantic relationship and causes additional conflict.
Keep in mind you should NEVER pile on extra fluff to reach a higher word count. Readers, potential publishers, and agents hate that. Each of your subplots must serve a higher purpose and be integrated into your plot arc, your character’s arc, and/or the reader’s experience of your story.
Reason #1: Supplementing the Plot Arc
Let’s say you’ve got a story about a plucky young hero off on adventure. The story will end with an epic showdown on a snowy cliff with a terrifying villain. Awesome. But how does Plucky get from his front porch to that mountaintop? Chances are he’s going to need to meet some people, find an object, or do some sort of tasks along the way to prepare him for the big showdown. Good mysteries may unfold as the detective finds a series of clues, but the best ones include a red herring or two. There are leads they follow that may not lead to the killer or exciting near-misses you can include as they find the next clue.
If you want to add a subplot that is directly related to your main plot, your protagonist needs additional obstacles and goals that lead to the main goal. This is the hardest type of subplot to add after the story is already done, but the easiest when you are in the planning stages.
Reason #2: Strengthening Your Theme(s)
Another aspect to the plot arc is your theme. The more different ways you can explore your theme within a single work, the better, so this could be another opportunity for a subplot even after you think you’ve finished. If you can’t say what your theme is or point to specific moments in your manuscript where you’ve attempted to address it, you’ve got work to do. Luckily, a subplot or two can go a long way to achieving it.
For instance, the overarching theme of the Mistress of None series is redemption. My protagonist, but also secondary characters, are going to act in ways that pose and attempt to answer questions like “Is redemption possible?” “What am I willing to do to achieve it?” and “Do I even deserve to be forgiven?” Deep down, my protagonist doesn’t believe she’s deserving, both for her various transgressions and inherent strangeness (supernatural abilities). Though she sometimes dares to hope she’s wrong. When deciding on what to add to No Rest for the Wicked, I eventually landed on using this internal struggle against her by setting her up to have a small success to bolster this hope further before tearing it away from her again.
(image source unknown)
Reason #3: Raising the Stakes
In terms of Blake Snyder’s beats, the stretch in question was right after the Midpoint and the area where the “Bad Guys Close In.” When I first conceived of this part of the story, it was the beginning of the second novella. But those same events just weren’t exciting enough and the stakes weren’t high enough after my exciting Midpoint peak. I had one subplot at play involving a secondary character, but largely this section was about the protagonist & co. traveling from one locale to another via the Transcontinental Railroad.
When it came to the plot arc of this book, there wasn’t really much that I could do to change the stakes on a story level. An assassin was on their tail, so the story already had reached life or death. The reader actually knew they were in a vague sort of danger, but the characters themselves lacked a sense of urgency at this point and I needed to do something to up the stakes.
Which meant I had to look at the character arc and the reader’s experience for inspiration when it came to upping the emotional ante and adding a subplot.
Reason #4: Deepening the Character
Six Things That Need Fixing
In Save the Cat! Blake Snyder has a great piece of advice when it comes to character building. He advises that a main character needs a minimum of six issues in their life (and more is even better). These can be big problems, like a villain out to take over the world. But that is only one thing about your character. There needs to be more to really get a reader invested.
I am sure if you think about your own life, you can come up with a list of minor problems that shape your everyday experience. Seasonal allergies, a noisy neighbor, kids who leave their Legos underfoot, unpaid parking tickets, a broken wand, a needy friend, a robot that needs house breaking…any of these things can serve as minor problems for your character. This can also include minor antagonists, nuisances rather than the big bad wolf.
If you get the feedback that there isn’t “enough” to your character for them to feel three-dimensional, this is a great place to start looking for ways to add depth. Plus, it’s a wonderful place to begin brainstorming a subplot. Snyder explains that giving people a well-rounded and gratifying emotional experience takes more than one setup and payoff, it is a series of small victories and defeats that make a great story. The more problems you set up for your protagonist to overcome, the sweeter the payoffs are later on.
In the case of the protagonist of No Rest for the Wicked, Vi had some problems/minor antagonists I had already resolved by the Midpoint. There were other things she was still working on and would continue to be problematic for her throughout the series, so I turned to these. Vi is extremely secretive and isolated for several interconnected reasons – out of habit (she’s a con woman who doesn’t trust people), out of fear of discovery (she has supernatural powers), and out of a subconscious sense of emotional self-preservation (the people she loves leave her).
Much of her Debate beat was deciding whether to go out on a limb for other people again and risk letting them reject her. At this point, she’d let two allies in on her supernatural secret (though neither time was on purpose). But she definitely wasn’t ready yet for the world at large to know about her ability to speak to ghosts. So, that is exactly the threat I needed to create in my subplot to raise the emotional stakes.
I had already decided to include some aspect of the redemption theme in my subplot, and now I had some characterization at play as well. By creating a subplot that had two independent justifications, I knew I wasn’t running the risk of just padding my word count. Now the question was, what was actually going to happen?
Reason #5: Tying up Loose Ends
Even the most tightly plotted story can end up with little things here and there that don’t come to fruition. This doesn’t mean a writer is careless. Only that they gave themselves options and decided not to take them all. When it comes to figuring out when and where to add a subplot, these loose story threads are the perfect place look. Your reader will get another satisfying emotional boost by seeing something get resolved and putting an end to any speculation on their part.
Chances are, you’ve paid the most attention to your main protagonist, but you’ve got lots of other characters going about their business as well. Take a look at these secondary characters and their character arcs to mine them for potential subplots. If they can function as a “funhouse” version for your protagonist and/or explore another aspect of your theme, all the better. Perhaps you’ve got one of those minor antagonists or red herrings I mentioned already in your plot, but there is room to expand on them. Though you don’t need everything tied up with a neat little bow, readers like to see things come to some sort of resolution before the end.
When I took critical look at the various threads of No Rest for the Wicked, one glaring loose end jumped out at me. I had a minor ghost character that served as the means for Vi to accidentally “come out” to one of her companions. But this unnamed ghost was not more than a nuisance or distraction that performed a function and then just faded into the background. I’d tucked the thread into the weave, but I hadn’t necessarily tied it off in the best possible way.
Then, lightning struck in my brainstorm and I knew exactly what my subplot needed to be. Vi had to decide to use her abilities (character arc) to help this ghost cross over (loose thread) in order to prove to herself that she wasn’t a terrible person (theme). But there was still one problem; I needed to create a backstory for the ghost and find a way to get that information to my characters.
Reason #6: Adding Information
If you get the feedback that your story needs “more,” this might mean you need to add depth to your world-building. There’s more to letting the reader in on your world than big blocks of description. You can also get there through asking questions and answering them with a subplot.
For example, in the world of the Harry Potter books, Rowling uses the house elves as a basis for subplots that span multiple books. The role the house elves play in the everyday lives of the wizards, their status as “lower beings” according to much of the wizarding world, as well as the actions of a few particular elves, all deepen the plots and the world of that series. The way they are treated show that Voldemort isn’t the only problem the wizarding world faces, there are societal struggles that run deeper than one evil character.
In some cases, you may find that you need to give the reader more context for not the entire world, but to help your plot or character’s choices to make sense. This could take the shape of tantalizing bits of backstory about any of the characters, objects, organizations, or places that are already part of your story. Adding or strengthening a subplot can be a great way to do this without the dreaded “info dump” clogging up your pacing.
Reason #7: Delivering on Promises
My subplot needed to come in at the Bad Guys Close In beat, but there are plenty of other places where one can come into play. If you go back over your text and realize you’ve made some promises about the world or characters you haven’t kept, it may be a good idea to think about a subplot at any point in the manuscript. This can even mean looking at what you’ve created and asking yourself, “Is this fun?” Because the bottom line is that people are reading your book in order to be entertained. If you make them slog through a series of downs without any ups, it’ll be harder to convince them they’re having fun. You may need a subplot here or there to lighten the mood in addition to thinking about the story arc and character arc reasons.
The important thing to remember is that you can’t make the reader promises that you don’t intend to keep. If your cover has a dragon on it, there had better be a dragon. Dropped a hint that the police force is corrupt? Find a way to show them how. If you have loose threads you don’t tie up or at least acknowledge still need tying (setting up a sequel, anyone?), you can leave people disappointed and unwilling to take a risk on your next book.
So, What Happened with No Rest for the Wicked?
I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I will say that I added a net total of 7500 words (about 35 pages) at this stage of revision. Then, I asked for feedback again. I gave the new version back to the betas who had the original criticism, but also to someone who had never read any version before. This time, they all agreed that the story finally had “enough.” Now, the manuscript is making the rounds to agents and publishers, and I feel more confident in my product than ever.
Do you have experience integrating subplots or using Blake Snyder’s writing advice? Got tips to share with your fellow writers about how to add “more”? Share in the comments!
Phoebe Darqueling is currently writing the sequel to No Rest for the Wicked and plotting her fourth novel, a standalone dark fantasy set near where she lives in the Black Forest of Germany. You can find her horror re-telling of Pinocchio entitled “The Marionette” in The Queen of Clocks and Other Steampunk Tales published July 2018. If you are interested in learning more about using Blake Snyder’s beats for revision, check out her article about shaping the collaborative Steampunk novel, Army of Brass.
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