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I'm writing a crime/mystery fiction novel.

The main plot involves a murder at the start, a case that my protagonist, a police detective, has to solve. He faces conflict and difficulties along the way, until solving who did it and making an arrest. At the inciting incident, he discovers that the homicide victim (who was a family friend) had in his possession an item that belonged to the detective's wife, who mysteriously died five years earlier.

Running alongside this main plot is the subplot linked to his wife. This subplot influences his character arc through the story. His wife was presumed to have drowned five years earlier, and after several years missing, 'death in absentia' was declared for her. He refuses to accept her death, as a body was never found. Relations had been excellent between them, though, and he knows she wouldn't have voluntarily disappeared like that. With her case unsolved, it went cold. The last person with her on the day she disappeared was the family friend, the new homicide victim. The detective always believed the family friend had something to do with her disappearance, but there was no proof, no evidence linking him to her death. The item found on the new victim forces the detective to reinvestigate her case alongside that case.

For the detective, solving his wife's disappearance (subplot?) has higher importance than the current case as it would allow him some closure and a chance to move on with his life. The homicide of family friend, however, is the main plot running from the beginning to the end and, I think I'm right in saying, would typically be assigned to the following plot points:

Inciting Incident / First Plot Point / First Pinch Point / Mid-Point / Second Pinch Point / Third Plot Point / Climatic Moment / Resolution

The hook at the beginning will be the homicide of the family friend.

Although the events of his wife's death happened as backstory, with my Protagonist having such a strong connection to this subplot, I'm wondering if I should assign that to these plot beats/points instead and using that as the force driving him forward at each stage?

Thank you in advance for your answers.

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Firstly, I think your concept sounds very intriguing.

In answer to your question, I would recommend the 'present' plot should be your main plot, and the missing wife should be the subplot.

Although the subplot might be more highly emotional, it's still in the past and the actions driving things forward will still be the recent murder, as that's what your detective is having to act on.

However, your subplot can still be very strong, 'sub' doesn't have to mean 'minor' or 'unimportant'. It can be just a little step behind the main plot.

But for the purposes of deciding which one to focus your beats on, I would go with the recent murder.

There's a plot template here you might find useful: https://www.novel-software.com/CMS/FILES/Plot%20Outlines/MysteryCrimeThrillerPlotOutline.pdf

Disclosure - we made this plot outline.

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  • 1
    Thanks for your reply, that's great and really helps me to get some clarity for moving forward and getting the outline mapped out. Overnight, I've been considering whether to extend the wife disappearance subplot over a series of books (probably three) and resolve that in book 3, allowing each book to focus on a main crime and progress the subplot slowly across each book. Because the main plot and subplot are so linked in book 1, I'm concerned though that the reader will feel cheated if the subplot doesn't get resolved in book 1? May I ask what you think? Thanks also for the outline template. – th1981 May 11 at 9:49
  • Hmm, good question. I initially liked your suggestion to draw the subplot out over the three books, but you're right, you don't want readers to feel cheated. I would also be wary of building it up so much that it's impossible to deliver a satisfactory conclusion. I don't feel I have enough info to answer properly. However... I think readers will be okay with no subplot resolution as long as the main plot is satisfactory enough. And people these days seem fine with books ending on cliffhangers which are resolved in the next book (though personally I hate that) so I think the tolerance is there! – TheNovelFactory May 12 at 11:38
  • Thanks for your reply. Thinking out loud, perhaps resolving both the plot & subplot in book one would be more desirable to the reader. I could end book 1 by answering the question of what happened to his wife, while allowing the discovery to raise a new question ready for book 2? – th1981 May 12 at 12:19
  • That sounds like a really good plan to me :) – TheNovelFactory May 12 at 12:54
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I think that the two plot lines must be related if the novel, taken as a unit, is to make sense to the reader. But "related" could mean many different things.

The question does not provide much in the way of context about the disappearance of the detective's wife. Was the marriage happy or not before the disappearance? Was it possible that the wife's departure was voluntary? Does the detective have feelings of guilt or failure regarding his behavior related to the disappearance? To simplify my answer, I am going to assume that the couple fought repeatedly, her disappearance was messy (maybe it was voluntary and maybe it was not), and that the detective is conflicted about his role in all of this.

Given these assumptions, the most obvious way of relating the two plot lines is to have them be parallel. In that case, the parallel case could have have a similar departure but one followed by the discovery of the murdered body of the genre plot. The questions that the detective must answer in the genre plot could also be questions that could have (or should have) been answered for his wife's disappearance. Step by step, he is forced to confront the issues which he has been avoiding about the disappearance.

The relationship between the two plots could also involve similar themes, locations, people who knew some or all of the players in the two plots, and so on. It could also involve differences. For example, the two crimes (or a specific aspect of them) are similar in almost all respects except for this little detail that should not matter but we all know by the end of the book will be the key clue.

Regardless of how you relate the two plots, the trick is to avoid being too on-the-nose with the comparisons. Perhaps, the two plots are comparable only at specific points while most of the plots are noise to keep the readers (at least partially) in the dark. Perhaps, the two plots take place in different cultures that mirror each other; where one is light the other is dark; where one gives power to this class/group/sect the other denies it.

Obviously, the two plots complicates the writing but there can be rewards.

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This a fun story. The central conflict is "what did the murdered friend have to do with the wife's disappearance?" and, really, the present murder is the subplot that is an obstacle to the resolution of that real central conflict. Regardless, plots and subplots normally feature all or nearly all the usual beats, otherwise the subplot is really just an obstacle in the main plot.

Typically, these sorts of stories are resolved by the solution to the immediate crime producing the solution to the past crime, which is quite satisfying but can feel contrived. Other times, the present case is resolved relatively quickly, but clues to the larger conflict lead the hero into uncharted territory (the wife's secret past or affair, for example).

Ideally, you would at least get the two plots out of sync so that progress in one produces or coincides with a new obstacle in the other. One advantage to this approach is that neither plot needs to be perfect; they complement and complicate each other. Good luck!

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  • Thanks Tysto. I had started to consider if running the wife disappearance plot/subplot across two/three books and having an immediate crime as the main plot for each book would work better. But given your advice, it sounds like both should probably be brought to a satisfying close for the reader in this first book? What do you think? Thanks – th1981 May 12 at 7:53
  • Oh, that would certainly work. The current murder takes prominence, and the clues uncovered along the way leave intriguing threads about the disappearance dangling for later books to resolve. In that case, those clues need to be pretty vague in the first book, so as to not let the disappearance overshadow the murder. – Tysto May 15 at 2:12
  • Thanks Tysto, that's helpful. – th1981 May 15 at 8:29

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