Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
Fiction is rich with story lines that lead readers down the road and around the bend and over the rainbow.
Plots entwine readers in the lives and adventures of characters they’ve just met and characters they know well. Good plots snare readers from page one. They make it impossible for readers to turn away, impossible to keep from following characters through the most troubling periods of their lives.
Impossible to put the books down.
Yet not all plots are created equal. And some plots are overshadowed by sub-plots or pushed aside in favor of digressions that lead nowhere.
We all have a friend or family member who tells a story from their day by mentioning every possible event and snippet remotely related to the event they’re describing. To be honest, we know people who, while sharing a story, tell us everything from their day whether it’s related to their main story or not.
Writers can do that as well.
And while we put up with the annoyance—sometimes—for friends and family, we’re not as forgiving when we lay out money for a book. We expect sub-plots to actually lead somewhere interesting. We expect cohesive story lines and not random tangents.
We expect story that makes sense from beginning to end.
Sub-plots can bring depth and richness to our writing. They can also get readers hyped about an issue or event or a character that we never intended to make a focus of the story.
But if we—through the words, the attention, the intensity, the emotion, the time given them or the focus on the characters involved in them—emphasize a sub-plot or side story, we make readers care. And if they care, they pay attention.
And then they expect a resolution to that sub-plot in keeping with its importance in the story.
Unfortunately, they don’t always get what they want.
A sub-plot is simply a secondary story line. It could be a love story in a mystery or suspense novel, a child’s death and its fallout or a business dilemma and its ramifications in any style of story, or even a health issue dealt with by one of the major characters.
A love story between secondary characters is a popular sub-plot in some contemporary romances.
Sub-plots are used to give depth to characters. They allow characters to have interests other than the singular one dealt with in the major plot. They are a way to reveal more of a character’s personality.
Sub-plots are also a way to distract characters from their stated course, a method for keeping them off balance when all their attention should be focused on the main problem.
Secondary plots are great for piling on problems. You want to make a character feel overwhelmed and overburdened? Add another problem through a sub-plot.
Think distraction, diversion, unbearable weight. Think of the character who’s already at the breaking point with one issue now having to face another heart-breaking or life-altering issue. Or maybe it’s not an issue that’s of major importance to him, but one that is important to someone he loves.
How does a character handle someone else’s life and death issue?
Adding an emotion-charged sub-plot works well to tie your characters in knots, change their way of thinking, push them into risks.
Look for a way to add not only a different level of problem, but a different type of problem.
Give a character a physical or emotional dilemma if the major plot line deals with a psychological problem. Attack your character’s family or his home, his health, his friends.
Challenge his dreams or career goals.
Twist the knife. Make him choose between fixing one problem and pursuing the other.
Yet always remember that your main plot should carry the story’s focus.
Don’t give your secondary plots more dynamic words or more dashing events than the main plot. Don’t give them more page space and emphasis. Don’t involve more characters in a side plot than the main one.
Don’t make a sub-plot’s climax and resolution more exciting than the one for your main story line.
Sub-plots don’t have to affect protagonist or antagonist directly. A sub-plot touches the main story, but it doesn’t always require direct action on the part of the main character or his antagonist.
Literary digression in its formal meaning is a deliberate ploy of writers to steer story away from the main plot. One of its uses in the past was to add explanations or to allow the writer to delve into the history or purpose of some element they included in the story; think of digression as a writer showing off his knowledge and what he learned while researching his book.
This use of digression definitely stops the forward motion of a story and can remind readers they are reading something that never happened, thus pulling them out of the events you so carefully arranged and crafted to seem real.
When I refer to digression in this article, instead of talking of this traditional literary meaning, I simply mean the little rabbit trails and small offshoots of story that branch off from the main story.
These digressions are not as fully integrated into the story as is a sub-plot. Nor are they as complex. Think of digressions as a writer adding a line or two of commentary. If not too long or involved, a digression can be added into the main story line with little notice by the reader. Little notice, that is, that the digression really has no true part in the unfolding plot.
Picture digressions not so much as plots or sub-plots but as short trips or author asides.
While you might employ rabbit trails for mysteries and in other stories to purposely mislead the reader, a digression that goes on for too long or that reaches too far in its distraction becomes a problem.
Author intrusion, no matter how well intentioned, is still author intrusion. And if it’s noticed as such, the wall between fiction and the real world is broken.
Sub-plots shouldn’t take over. They can’t assume the burden of moving characters and readers toward the story’s goal to the degree that the main plot should do. If they take on too much importance, if the foundation or frame of the story rests on them, they become rivals to the main plot.
(Digressions definitely shouldn’t take over. If you include them, keep them short and simple.)
Sub-plots shouldn’t hog story time and page space and the characters’ thoughts and the readers’ expectations.
Sub-plots and side plots also can’t lead nowhere. They must have a purpose.
They should have meaning for the story and the characters without becoming the major focus.
Sub-plots should, like every other element in story, work to advance the main plot, reveal character, and/or increase conflict. They can also stir reader emotion or affect tone.
They should work with and not against the main plot.
Sub-plots need beginning points, high moments, climaxes, and resolutions.
Don’t leave sub-plots dangling—unless you plan to complete them in another book. And if you do, make sure readers know that’s your intention.
You might forget you’ve left a sub-plot without resolution, but your readers won’t.
Use beta readers to tell you if a sub-plot is too involved, if it overwhelms the main story. And trust them if they tell you they expected more out of your secondary story line, that it didn’t do much for the story. If they wonder why it was even there, your sub-plot needs work.
Beta readers might have trouble explaining a problem with a secondary plot that’s too detailed or that overshadows the main plot. Yet if several readers tell you they like a secondary character more than your protagonist or that a second bad guy makes a better antagonist, you’ve probably invested your sub-plot with more compelling events or dialogue than your main plot.
Pros of sub-plots
Can cure a flat story; keep stories full
Allow characters to be multi-dimensional
Pile problems on for the main character
Set up characters for a multi-book series
Distract characters and readers so they don’t catch on too quickly
Cons of sub-plots
Can take over the story and prove too distracting
Can be more fascinating than the main story
May be resolved insufficiently, leaving readers dissatisfied
May be boring
Can dilute the impact of the main plot
Turn reader focus to relatively unimportant events or characters
Can pull readers from the fiction if they don’t fit the main plot
May not fit the style or tone of the rest of the story
Use sub-plots to create layers and depth, yet don’t feel that you need a true sub-plot for every story. Characters with complex lives and histories and competing goals may serve just as well.
But know that sub-plots can enhance your fiction. Can make your characters even more seemingly real.
No one lives in a vacuum; we are touched in many ways every day. Giving your characters multiple plot lines can make them more like the rest of us.
Save digressions for stories, and moments, when you intend the author’s voice to be heard and recognized. Modern fiction doesn’t make much use of true literary digression, but a momentary digression here or there might work for your stories. If, however, you intend to keep readers immersed in the fiction, stay away from digressions.
When the reader’s wondering why you included the history of sword-making in your modern mystery, that reader is no longer involved in the fiction. And you risk losing him as a reader for your next book.
Write engrossing plots and use sub-plots to your benefit. Don’t be tempted to destroy the aura of fiction for your readers.