The Background: I'm writing a novel that is set in the working quarters of a cruise ship. It's named after the "stage identitiy" of the main characters. (Let's call her Nancy.) All the subplots I have developed so far nicely hinge on Nancy. However, one of my secondary characters (Tim) turned out to have an excellent story to tell that is predestined to be a subplot in the Nancy-novel. Tim's story is neatly tied to another character. Unfortuanetly, this character is not Nancy, and no: It cannot, ever, be Nancy. Nancy is a concerned witness of Tim's story. That is all.

The Problem: I'm determined to tell Tim's story, since it is important to me and an integral part of life at sea. However, I'm afraid it will feel out of place in a novel called and centered around Nancy.

The Question(s):

  1. What is your experience with subplots? When do they become too complex or emotionally engaging to act as valid subplots? Have you ever picked a subplot from it's original story and wrote an independent novel around it?
  2. How can I engage the reader emotionally with a strong subplot without drawing his main sympathies the protagonist?
  3. Lastly: Since life at sea is communal, I considered using multiple points of view to capture the "village feeling" prevailing in ship communities. I feel that I have enough interesting secondary characters to pull this of. Yet, the novel should remain centered on Nancy. How do I weigh my narrators to make sure that Nancy is the single main character?*

*Yes, I concidered renaming the novel. However, Nancy is the core of the story and I feel the name is well justified.

  • I think this happens pretty much in every book by Philip K. Dick I've read. It certainly does in "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" and "The man in the high castle" and nobody seems to have a problem with it.
    – xDaizu
    Commented May 17, 2018 at 14:00
  • How is any of that a problem? How could you think the content detailed in your exposition might make any difference to the Question, "What to do when the subplot is only loosely tied to the main"? How might it matter if Tim's story was "predestined to be a subplot in the Nancy-novel," whatever that meant? What if Tim's story was tied to another character? Have you not read many works in which whole chapters happen to be interesting, and are included for no more reason than Tim serving on Nancy's ship? Renaming sounds drastic. Why do that? Commented Feb 23, 2021 at 23:08

2 Answers 2


There's no reason not to include it. It will display the fact that your protagonist does not exist inside a vacuum. Whilst her personal story progresses, so does everyone's, and the effects of this will be seen through the eyes of your protagonist. It will help to flesh out the characters you have created, and make the world more believable.

The issue is how much attention you pay to it, which depends on the type of story that you wish to write. If you wish to have a handful of main characters, then each of their personal stories must be pretty equal. They must all go through character arcs, have their own problems to overcome (even if they are the same problem, they each must have their own motivations and ways to overcome it), and they must all be worthy of a story.

However, if you still want to focus on a single character, you will have to sacrifice the depth to which you can run into the sub-plot. Your protagonist can see it all unfold, and possibly hear through the grapevine about certain occurrences, and then be there for the pivotal moments (either directly, or for example being a shoulder to cry on when something tragic happens).

This is not to say the sub-plot won't be unfolding, just that the protagonist would not be present for every single evolution of that plot (unless it was massively coincidental), as it is not her story.

Personally I love creating characters that have their own things going on outside the story of the protagonist. They each have their own stories, and they pass by each other like ships in the night, their stories intertwining for the briefest of moments before they go their separate ways. But that requires a certain amount of ruthlessness to discard these side-stories that might be interesting to a reader.


The various parts of a novel may be tied together in different ways. They may be connected by the threads of plot. But equally they may be thematically related to each other, or provide thematic counterpoint to each other.

The wholeness and integrity of a novel depends on the wholeness and integrity of its effect of the reader. If the subplots intersect thematically it does not seem necessary that they should intersect at the level of incident or character. But they must intersect somehow, or they will seem out of place.

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