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Disclaimer: This is not a duplicate of this question. That question deals with subplots being necessary to a story's success, and also loosely how to create them. This question is aimed at knowing when to include subplots, and how many I need. If any.

Let me open by saying that I design my novels extensively before ever writing the first draft. I create my characters and design my plot (amongst other important things), and then write. However, I've recently discovered that I haven't been including subplots in my stories. This leads me to the question below:

How do I know when I need subplots? How do I know which subplots I need to create?

Looking at answers about subplots on this site and others, the general idea of a subplot seems to be that it can show other sides of your characters, making them more real to the reader. It can advance or effect the plot, sending it in different directions. I've even heard one suggestion that it can reinforce the theme on a more personal level.

The point is, you could create a large number of subplots. You could have one for every main, secondary, and tertiary character, a handful to mix up the main plot, and one or two to support the theme. But if you do that, you're going to have way too many subplots.

Your novel has a main plot, a main road it's trying to take. You don't want too many sideroads, because then the main road becomes obsolete. It's no longer the main road. It's just another side-road.

So, to repeat the question, knowing that, how do I decide what to create subplots about? Is there some line I can draw somewhere? Is it at the number of subplots? Perhaps the types of things the plots are about?

How do you know when to include subplots, and how many?

  • 1
    This probably depends on the type of story you're writing. A novel for a grade school audience probably doesn't want many sideplots. A thriller or mystery has specific tonal things it needs to do, so unless you're doing a red-herring or have other goals you may not want many. I don't feel confident answering this question, but I'd guess an answer has to intrinsically be tied to what you're trying to accomplish, in how much space, whether your audience feels satiated, and whether you're able to accomplish that with one plot arc. – Kirk Mar 22 '17 at 22:11
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You could think of a subplot like a side dish to a meal. It provides contrasting or complementary flavours that enhance the overall dining experience.

How many side dishes are too many? When they overwhelm or confuse the senses? How many are too few? When the main dish grows dull and monotonous without them?

These are matters of taste. You tell by tasting. Does the dish need something? Is it being overwhelmed? Use your tastebuds.

In terms of plot mechanics (someone had to go to Aix to pick up a widget while the main party goes to Ghent) the subplot can be disposed on in a sentence ("We sent Tom and Fred to Aix to pick up a widget. They met up with us later at the inn in Ghent.") or it can be narrated in full over several chapters. Both will satisfy the mechanical requirements of the plot. Deciding whether to narrate it, therefore, comes down to whether it is necessary to balance the taste of the meal. Will their tale provide the reader with a delicious counterpoint to the main tale, or will it be a weary slog of redundant flavors.

An experienced cook no doubt develops a good sense of when they are going to need to add a side dish as they are designing the meal. A less experienced cook will definitely need to cook and taste and try different things before they develop the sensibility to know in advance what will be needed to produce the perfect balance of tastes that will make a memorable meal.

In short: it is a matter of taste, not plot mechanics, and you may actually have to sit down and write the thing in order to tell how much subplot it needs.

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I'll tag along what @RobtA said above, regarding reversing the question and asking when you can get rid of subplots.

You described your writing process as very structured, so consider this formula for figuring out when and where to have subplots:

  1. Write a rough draft of your story, focusing only on the main plot.
  2. Read what you wrote. Do you feel it was complete? Did the characters get fleshed out enough? Did you add enough foreshadowing along the way for the plot and its twists to "make sense" to the reader? For the characters decisions in the main plot to "make sense"?
  3. If the answer to part 2 is "no", then add subplots to fix the problem.
  4. Repeat steps 2-3 till your done.

(Hope this is helpful, and not too "rigid"...)

  • Don't worry about it being rigid for me. :) My structure is so rigid I rarely write more than one draft. The outline and development are the first few drafts. – Thomas Myron Mar 24 '17 at 16:28
  • Great. Hope I helped somewhat... – Elisha Rosensweig Apr 8 '17 at 20:38
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Subplots are forms of a story that are used to lead in important pieces of information for your overarching story. Think of subplots as the bricks that build your wall, (the entire arc).

Subplots are just generally the stories that lead to more information, a certain character's background, information about how to solve a puzzle, background on the worlds history. Think of subplots as stories that exist within the overall plot of your book.

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Another way to think about this, is to repharase your question: When can you eliminate subplots?

Consider the familiar "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Was Tom Bombadil really necessary? Were the Ents really necessary? For that matter, was anything involving Saruman really necessary?

Although I could not find it on the Internet, I recall that someone once attempted to reduce Wagner's four-opera Ring series into a single one-act opera.

Once you decide what is not really necessary, then you can expand from there, providing subplots that are interesting rather than really necessary. The key word is "interesting."

  • When is something considered necessary? Only if it advances the main plot? Because that is easy to follow. But character advancement also happens in sub plots, so when is a specific character andvancement not necessary? – Noralie Apr 17 '17 at 15:30
  • @Noralie A subplot is necessary if you, the author, think it is necessary. But if you are not sure, then it is not necessary. However, subplots often appear for fun, or as filler. That was surely the case with Tom Bombadil, the dominant inhabitant of a region east of the Shire. The adjacent Hobbits, who had an adventurous reputation, seem never to have heard of him. He has no influence later in the story. Either the author put him there for fun, or to delay the plot. The latter is possible, since I believe the story was originally written as timed installments. – user23046 Apr 17 '17 at 18:23
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Subplots can provide an opportunity to break up a narrative that's basically linear, and could at a counterpoint to the mood - they could be humorous in a serious plot, for example. They allow more exploration of character, too, and in most cases should probably tie back into the main plot in an unexpected way.

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