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  • Writer's pictureYessica Jain

Balancing Subplots

Without a plot, a story doesn’t exist. But with only one plot, a good story rarely exists. That’s why subplots exist. This week’s post is about balancing multiple plotlines in a single story.

Main Plot vs. Subplots

The main plot is the plot that every chapter advances in some way. However, a singular main plot is not enough to sustain most stories, especially long-form writing such as novels. Subplots help support the main plot in various ways:

  • Events rarely stand alone and every action has consequences, so subplots prevent plot holes from sneaking into your writing. For instance, your main character may require help from a supporting character to reach their goal. Why does the supporting character agree to help? Your main plot may not reveal the answer to this question, in which case a subplot explaining the history between the two characters may be necessary.

  • Additionally, nobody likes a flat character (except Flat Stanley), and having one plotline is a recipe for a single-minded character. After all, the last thing

  • And, let’s be honest. People are easy to bore—even (perhaps especially) readers. Multiple plots and character arcs can help prevent boredom because it keeps multiple unanswered questions hanging mid-air at all times. It also helps attract readers from different backgrounds and those who might not be the biggest fan of your main genre.

These are just a few reasons for including subplots in your stories. Whatever the reason for including subplots, you do want to make sure every subplot can be tied back to the main plot either because it either causes events in the main plot, is caused by events in the main plot, serves as an obstacle to the development of the main plot, etc.

Genre Norms

Another thing to think about when balancing plotlines is your target audience and intended genre.

The main plot of your story determines its genre. Most fantasy and action novels, for instance, follow a hero pursuing a physical goal or trying to defeat a villain, plotlines in which the stakes include lives (or something worse). Romance novels, on the other hand, focus on relationships between characters. Coming-of-age novels focus on how these relationships change over a long period of time. Mysteries typically follow the steps taken to answer a question and the questions that arise in the process.

However, action novels can—and should—explore character relationships. Coming-of-age novels could explain events that occur to people the main character interacts with, like their parents. Mystery novels might explore the history of the protagonist or another character.

How Many is Too Many?

Yes, you should include subplots in your story, but like everything, subplots are best in moderation. Too many can make it difficult for your reader to follow along with the story.

One way to assess whether you are meeting these requirements is checking your word count. Assuming each subplot is developed thoroughly, your story should meet the typical word count restrictions for your genre. If you have drastically surpassed the word count requirements, you might need to cut one (or multiple) subplot(s) from your story. If you have yet to reach your genre’s word count, you might not have enough going on.

Some great examples of books that balance numerous subplots really well include Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series and Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. What are your favorite subplots in books? Let me know in the comments!

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