Questionable: How Do You Start and Develop Subplots?

K asked:
Do you start out knowing all of the subplots? Or do they tumble and bump into each other along the way? Are there certain ways you like to develop subplots? Or do they just come to you?  Are they villain driven?

As I believe I’ve said before, I don’t recommend my method. I never know what the hell I’m doing in the beginning.  I just write.  Characters show up.  Some of them are interesting enough they develop their own plot lines.  Some of those I have to put the kibosh on because they’re cluttering up the story (good-bye, Mort).  Some of them echo the main plot or act as a foil to the main plot, and they deepen what’s happening in the story as a whole, so I keep them (hello, Max and Button).  So for the first discovery draft, I just let them happen. After that, as always, I analyze. And to analyze I go back to basic plot structure.

Subplots, like main plots, are protagonist driven and antagonist shaped. (To your question “Are they villain driven?”, if the antagonist drives the plot, he or she is not the antagonist, he or she is the protagonist.) But subplots have another function: they act as echos or foils to the main plot, deepening it by either showing another aspect of its thesis or showing a contrast to it.

Example: In Faking It, Tilda and Davy are both trying to go straight, but in order to keep Tilda out of jail, they both have to go back to conning people including each other.  That screws with their relationship, and they can’t straighten it out until they tell each other the truth.  Meanwhile, Tilda’s sister Eve and Davy’s friend Simon have a great sex life because they’re lying in their teeth to each other; their fantasies are what fuel their passion.  So when Eve finally tells Simon the truth, he ends their relationship, his fantasy destroyed, and Eve is furious with him when she learns his truth, her fantasy destroyed.  That Eve/Simon subplot is a contrast to the Tilda/Davy main plot because the Tilda/Davy relationship is built through working together and understanding each other and finally trusting each other enough to tell the truth; whereas the Eve/Simon relationship can only last as long as they lie to each other.   The Eve/Simon subplot is necessary to the story as a foil for the main plot. (Tilda’s antagonist is Clea; Eve’s antagonist is Simon.)

So I look at each of the subplots that are emerging and ask, “How is this going to make the book sharper, deeper, better?  How does it relate to the main plot? How is it necessary?”  If it isn’t, I get rid of the subplot.  Right now I have too many romance subplots in Nita, everybody in the story falls in love, and that’s ridiculous.  

So I look at how the subplots echo or contrast with the main plot. The main romance plot is about two people who are completely alone: Nita, a one of a kind supernatural being in a world full of humans and Nick, a dead human living in a world full of live demons. A contrast to that would be a relationship between two insiders surrounded by a support group, like the youngest member of a long line of demon killers and a fixer who’s the latest in a long line of demons; Button and Max bond because they’re both action-oriented, determined to clear obstacles from the paths of those they protect while dealing with the weight of their families’ histories. The fact that Nita, Nick, Button, and Max are all basically fixers helps bond them into a team, but the contrast between the two romances heightens how much more difficult things are for Nita and Nick. Button and Max are used to connecting with people so they fall for each other pretty easily. Nita and Nick are used to being alone, so they struggle.

The other romances don’t resonate as well. Jeo and Daphne fall for each other because they’re young and attractive and that’s about as far as I got there; I wanted Daphne in there so that Jeo would turn down Nick’s offer to make him his heir. Rab and Dom have even less motivation; they’re both information junkies with big hearts and big brains, but I don’t do anything with that, either. The one thing both romances have going for them thematically is that they’re inter-species human/demon, and a big part of this book is accepting who you are and who others are. They’re also, by accident not design, mixed race romances, which plays into that theme. I really don’t have the page real estate to devote to developing those subplots, which means that they could go and the book wouldn’t be hugely damaged in the way that losing the Button/Max subplot would hobble the plot.

It’s important to begin subplots after the main plot begins because you don’t want the reader mistaking the subplot protagonist for the story protagonist and bonding with him or her (and because the main plot doesn’t being until the protagonist steps on stage because the story belongs to her/him), and they end before the main plot ends because you don’t want them dragging out the end of the book. They should be shorter than the main plot because you don’t want them to be more compelling than the main plot and much less complex because they can’t claim too much page real estate without threatening that main plot.

Basically, subplots are developed and constructed just like main plots, except instead of being The Story, they’re in service to The Story.

33 thoughts on “Questionable: How Do You Start and Develop Subplots?

  1. I have a different but related question – how do you even find a plot? I can drive characters around and they natter and are delightful, but I cannot locate or build a plot for my life. I feel like I am missing something fundamental, and I’m not sure where to look to find it.

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    1. What’s the protagonist’s goal? (What does she need to survive, with you defining “survive”?)
      What character is blocking that goal? (That would be the antagonist.)

      Then set up the Central Story Question at the beginning so the reader will worry about it: Will the protagonist defeat the antagonist and get the goal?

      The reader doesn’t have to know who the antagonist is, just that the protagonist needs something.

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      1. Wait. So. Avengers: Infinity War. Could there be an argument that our villain, Thanos, is actually our protagonist? He has a very very clear goal (get the infinity stones, use them–trying not to spoiler but does anyone really care?) and he is driving towards that goal the whole time. The rest of them, their goal is “stop Thanos.” Or are these designations when we’re talking superheroes just not applicable?

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        1. I think they’re always applicable and (full confession) have not yet seen Infinity War. Or Guardians 2. Or Black Panther. Or Incredibles 2. Or the last two seasons of Legends. I am behind on film in general.

          However, I would quibble with the “stop Thanos” as a goal, and suggest “save the world or at least half the people in it.” In other words, if Thanos had passed the gauntlet on to somebody else to finish the job, they’d have gone after the somebody else, stopping Thanos would not have accomplished their goal. (Also Thanos has been after those stones since . . . the first Avengers? so long term goal not restricted to this movie.).

          I think at this point with the Marvel stuff, it’s so huge that it’s lost focus so it’s harder to do plot analysis. Look at Tony: you can argue he’s still try to expiate his arms selling and that leads him to losing his surrogate son, but you have to drag that one over how many movies? to get to it. That may be why I like the smaller films like Ant Man and the first Guardians better; much better focus. Although my fave is still Winter Soldier.

          But I also think that’s a two part story since it ends at the point of no return (except they’re gonna try to go back, I think). I think Infinity and Endgame are one movie, but that’s a guess based what I’ve read.

          Maybe tonight I’ll watch Black Panther. I’ve been meaning to, my life just got hectic. For months.

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          1. I just thought of Tony at the end of the first Avengers, telling Loki, “If we can’t save the world, we’ll damn sure avenge it.” You could say the goal of that movie was “defeat Loki,” but it wasn’t, it was saving New York and the rest of the world. Defeating Loki and losing NYC to the Chitari would have been a loss, not a win.

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  2. I’d miss the balance of Jeo and Ran subplots go. They show the world that’s built rather than telling about it.

    If Mort’s gone, did Keres become Nita’s superfecundity twin?

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    1. Nope, no twins. Which is a real shame because, those of you who remember how this started, I wanted to include all the stuff that was banned from the classic mystery stories, and twins were one of the tropes that was verboten.

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  3. Protagonist: me. Antagonist: the internet. Plot: They’re All Out To Get Me.

    I mentioned cooking cubed chicken, pineapple and brown rice? So last night, before bed, I watched some you-tube videos. A random selection. But one was Seven Foods You Should Never Reheat in a Microwave. Naturally, two of them were chicken and rice. Naturally. I wonder if Minnie and Charm Boy knew not to eat the leftover Marsala?

    Maybe I can reheat in a skillet?

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    1. I loathe, loathe, loathe reheated chicken (tastes like fish to me, and I hate fish), no matter how it’s done. I seem to be in the minority on that though, never met anyone else who had the same reaction, so I’m not sure where that rule came from, unless it was someone else like me who hates the reheated flavor. On the plus side, I’m perfectly happy with cold chicken, so that’s how I eat the left-overs, tossed on top of a salad.

      As to the reheating rice, I’ve seen that rule before somewhere, but never understood it. Reheated rice is fine, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not like, say, bread, that gets turned into cardboard in the microwave. Blech.

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      1. Chicken thighs are just fine. Chicken breast, unless brined, is just one step up from cardboard to begin with.

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    2. I’ve been reheating chicken and rice for years, only to find out that reheated rice is supposedly bad for you unless it was refrigerated immediately. No idea why I’ve survived.

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    3. Hmmmmm…my husband would starve if he couldn’t nuke rice. (Haha – he loves the stuff far more than I do and he always makes big batches.) All joking aside, I have seriously never noticed any particular degradation with nuking rice. On the other hand, I do have a certain suspicion of those clickbait listicles, be they text-based or video…

      FWIW.

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      1. It’s some odd bacteria that loves rice.
        Having said that, I reheat rice all the time and haven’t gotten sick yet. (Falls over after posting this comment.)

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        1. My mother-in-law lets rice sit in the rice cooker (which is hot, but not kill-bacteria hot, I think) for a day or two, and then wraps up the leftovers and freezes them to nuke. Japanese food hygiene is just bizarre though, and I think their immune systems have been in training all their lives to overcome some minor bacteria. I don’t eat much rice, and they never seem to get tummy problems, so maybe it’s not a very common problem.

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        1. One of my Mom’s favorite sarcastic sayings is “I wonder how I ever survived…” or if she is feeling particularly sarcastic “it’s a wonder April Fools human race has survived”. As she points out, in April Fools old days, her mother, grandmother, etc fried chicken before church and put it in the pie cupboard until after church and visiting were over. And no one ever got sick. She is actually good with food hygiene but thinks scientists have gone a bit batty recently. Her point is how are people ever going to develop immune systems if it isn’t challenged sometimes. Don’t go overboard either way, is what most of her advice boils down to

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    4. It’s not the microwave, it’s the re-heating itself. But if you do it in a skillet, the tenperature will probably be high enough to kill off the bacteria. Just warming up left-over stuff a little is what you shouldn’t do.

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    5. I reheat brown rice and chicken in the microwave all the time. Should I expect to die sometime soon or is it just that the quality suffers?

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      1. Both from my reading and those youtube videos, rice may harbor bacteria. Heating to 165 degrees Farfergnougat will kill the bacteria. The chicken just gets rubbery and “less flavorful.” Microwaves don’t heat uniformly, so even if some bacteria is killed, not all maybe killed.

        If you haven’t ever suffered symptoms after eating your reheated chicken and rice, you must be doing it right. I’ll be eating mine, but this time I’ll use my skillet, just to be safe(r).

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    6. We take our freshly cooked rice, portion it into enough for two people, put into container and freeze. When needed we take out one container, drop into a pot of kettle boiled water. Leave to sit on electric stove on mark 3. Stir. One heated through, strain and serve.

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  4. Jenny, I apologize deeply for hijacking your sub plot thread with my cooking problems. I am going to eat the “Polynesian chicken,” reheated in a skillet, NOT the microwave, and you’re right about boneless, skinless breast of chicken. The lack of Flavor And Taste (FAT) is why dietitians so highly recommend it. It is also why I added pineapple, fake salt, pepper. I was going to add red and yellow bell peppers, but they were in the fridge too long and started growing penicillin.

    About sub plots, I was once a submariner, and sub plots were the tracking maps for enemy subs. I suspect that doesn’t count for steering the thread back on topic, though.

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      1. Thread Drift is a concept with which I am intimately familiar. Back in my Usenet days, we would ask people who changed the subject to Change The Subject of the thread. There was a thread whose subject name changed with every poster – we made a game of it. Since 99% of the posts in the Newsgroups became spam, I don’t think anyone uses Usenet anymore, except for a few moderated groups.

        So… if one Faking It subplot was Simon and Eve being Happy Liars, what was the Nadine subplot?

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        1. There wasn’t a Nadine subplot. She was a supporting character, but she didn’t have a plot of her own.
          The other subplots were Gwen vs Ford, and Davy vs Michael, although I started that one too late.

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    1. You just reminded me, Gary, that one of my older sisters, when my mom made navy bean soup, loved to eat her’s on a piece of buttered white bread and my dad would always say “White on white, that girl is going to grow up to be a hospital dietician”.

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  5. Every one of my subplots has sproinged up like a frickin’ weed while I was trying to do something else. About half of my characters have, too. That’s one reason I have ended up at 23-and-counting novellas in this series, trying to keep all the excess people & subplots in their place during a given story so the actual protagonist and love interest could get their groove on.

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  6. I’ve realized that when I think of romance conflict I tend to categorize them as internal (hero or heroine has to grow up/recover from trauma/ recognize that the person they are longing for is actually an idiot), between the couple (enemies to lovers, can’t communicate) or external (in the historical romance category my favorite here is Connie Brockaway’s My Dearest Enemy, because the conflict is over the marriage laws of the times—she won’t marry because then her husband would have all the rights over any kids and her mom lost her kids that way, he insists on marriage because he was born a bastard and knows what that means).

    I’m not sure how that fits with the antagonist concept.
    Particularly the Brockaway book where I think she is his antagonist and he is hers. It’s a pretty well balanced book between him and her.

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  7. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise and experience!

    The examples are really helpful, seeing one that’s been completed and then watching how you solve the other one where you’re still in the process.

    I’ll be reading Faking It again this week.

    And I really appreciate knowing that it’s ok not to quite know where to go in the first draft, and then to analyze and tweak in the next.

    Thank you as always for sharing your process! I learn so much. 😊

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