Understanding little things called subplots

X-Files GIF

I’m discovering that “subplots” is a term that most of us think we understand, but really we have a lot to learn about.

Subplots are miniature storylines that branch from the main storyline, right? Except … how the hell do you put them together? What constitutes a good, working “subplot” versus “some random side stuff than happens”?

In my current WIP, I think I’m getting better at developing subplots — or at least better at identifying them, which is really the first step to building them. But it’s a little like trying to make pottery. It looks easy until you actually do it. You end up with something that looks like a lump rather than a pretty pot.

I like how Janice Hardy explains plotting with layers. She writes, “A good subplot will add complications to your core conflict, be a step to achieving that core conflict, or cause trouble in your character’s internal or personal story arc. Subplots aren’t there just to cause random trouble or tell the story of another character because that character is interesting. They’re there to help illustrate some point of your core story.”

How do you know you’ve developed and tied up a sideplot well enough? That’s what I’m trying to figure out for myself, one ugly lump of clay at a time. I’m currently keeping track of each scene that contributes to a particular subplot, and guiding each of the subplots is what I’m calling a “breakthrough question” — the bigger question I’m trying to answer and the point I’m trying to get the character to by the end.

I like that Hardy points out that subplots can be a complication, “a step to achieving that core conflict,” or even a means to “help illustrate some point of your core story,” because that provides a little more room to work with.

I’m not sure if there are any true hard-and-fast rules for crafting subplots, but the bottom line seems to be, make sure it’s relevant to your characters’ growth, theme, or the main conflict … and not just some random side stuff that happens.