Connecting Subplots with Each Other and the Main Story Arc: How Can This Work?

nautical-knot-1431551-mToday’s post is all about subplots. Specifically, it’s about ways to connect subplots so that they fit together in a cohesive whole that supports, improves, and expands upon the major plot.

We all know subplots have their place. And we know  finding that place can be difficult.

  • They have to be intriguing and interesting without taking away from the main plot.
  • They need to accomplish as much as possible within a limited number of words allocated.

When you want to embellish and expand upon aspects of your story, the most important things in your story are what probably deserve that attention. That means your major story arc.

One thing that might bring reviewers to state “the story bored me” or “the story dragged on” is when an author equally embellishes subplots and a main plot. Think about it: the main plot should have something to distinguish it from subplots, right? Something to mark it as the main plot?

This doesn’t mean subplots should be poorly written, of course. It means there is a certain depth of description and attention that is appropriate in a main plot that may–may, depending on your individual style and story–be overkill in your subplots.

That said, what are some other ways subplots can interweave to form a support structure that strengthens the complexity of your story and the quality of your writing?

SUBPLOTS SHOULD HAVE SOME IMPACT ON THE MAIN PLOT

Now, that impact can be indirect…. Maybe a subplot largely concerns character C, who is important in the life of character B as a business contact. Their interactions impact the connection between the protagonist (character A) and character B, who is up in the air about whether to throw needed support behind character A.

See? The impact of the subplot above on character A and the main story arc is largely indirect. Character C doesn’t even have to know that character A exists. Character B provides a link that connects character C’s subplot with the main story and thus gives the reader an obvious reason to care about character C’s relationship with character B.

This kind of an indirect connection is a form of story structure that is defensible, logical, and often used in stories. It will impact readers one of two ways:

  • It can provide a nice breather from the main story arc, a fun change of pace due to the new character(s) involved and perhaps a shift in tone and setting.
  • It can annoy readers who for whatever reason don’t like the interruption, the content of the subplot, and/or the new character(s) and would prefer to get back to the main plot.

I sometimes felt this way about Hagrid’s subplots when reading the Harry Potter books. But I loved the Harry Potter books nothing less for that. You see, the brilliance of this kind of structure is that, even when readers don’t really connect with the subplot, they understand why it’s there.

They can see the indirect link between the subplot and the main plot, and they understand that this scene or chapter that they don’t like as much as others will impact the storyline they are invested in.

I didn’t care for Hagrid’s stories as much as for other subplots and the major plots of J.K. Rowling’s series, but I always knew Hagrid’s bumbles and mistakes, as well as his unwavering loyalty and bravery, would throw some kind of twist in the development of the story.

That knowledge kept me invested in Hagrid’s (mis)adventures concerning dragons, huge spiders, and giants.

YOU CAN STRENGTHEN THE INDIRECT LINKS BETWEEN SUBPLOTS BY THEMATIC TIES.

You can’t do anything about what tastes your readers have in terms of what themes and what kinds of stories they prefer. That’s just a fact. Either they will be predisposed to like the story you’re writing or they won’t.

One thing you can do, though, to increase the chances that readers who like your main story will also enjoy reading the subplots you develop?

Put in some kind of thematic tie between them all!

A fantastic example of this is a recent example of the television show, “Once Upon a Time In Wonderland.”

The “Once Upon a Time” shows are unique in that they often tell two or three loosely connected stories an episode: one is set in the past of the storybook characters, and often takes place in a world separate from the realm those characters are presently inhabiting.

A recent episode had these two major storylines:

  • Alice (in Wonderland) is trying to find a genie’s bottle with the help of the Knave of Hearts.
  • The Knave of Hearts (in his past in the Enchanted Forest) joins Robin Hood and his Merry Men to propose they rob Maleficent’s castle.
  • Two villains (in Wonderland), Jafar and the Red Queen, are plotting to stop Alice.

What combines all these subplots? In particular, what connects the flashback story about the Knave of Hearts, a character who is only a sidekick of the main character, to what is happening in Wonderland?

The theme of TRUST.

Each storyline comes to a head at a moment when one character must make a conscious decision whether to more or less blindly trust someone else in order to get something he or she wants.

It is very well constructed…. That theme of trusting other people, and the risk trust involves, is what the episode is really all about.

Each supblot puts a different spin of the danger and the value of trust while still advancing the major story of the series: Alice’s quest to rescue a genie named Cyrus from Jafar.

Even the flashback subplot helps: it characterizes the one person Alice believes she can trust in Wonderland and clues in the viewer that Alice might be making a mistake there. (I won’t say more than that… spoilers!)

My point here is that a common theme, or even tone and mood, among varied subplots will maintain an overall feel to your story that is consistent.

What I’m calling a “theme” could be anything, and could be developed or approached differently in different subplots. The connection sill provides a consistency that ensures something very, very important:

  • Readers who enjoy the major story you are telling are more likely to enjoy at least one or two aspects of the subplots that are their least favorite.

Even fair readers who write poor reviews (because they didn’t enjoy the book, because it wasn’t for them) won’t be able to say your work was inconsistent, or dropped in quality halfway through, or was just confusing because it was all over the place.

Some readers can, and will, recognize when a book that doesn’t appeal to them is nonetheless well-constructed, consistent in what it does, and powerful in its storytelling. That’s why threads of some kind among your subplots matter.

So, what do you guys think of connecting subplots with each other and with the main plot? I’ve struggled with that in my current WIP…. I’m focusing on strengthening a tie of the value of selflessness and also cutting back on the subplot wherever I can. It’s helping a lot!

If you enjoyed this post or found it helpful, last week’s post about what makes a plot boring might also be useful.

Don’t forget you can sign up to follow my blog by email at the top right of the page as well. I publish new posts on Wednesdays and Sundays.

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40 responses to “Connecting Subplots with Each Other and the Main Story Arc: How Can This Work?

  1. This is a very helpful article right now as I plan my series. I have a murder to be solved, but there is an underlying theme of outsider lifestyles, swingers, gay, and transexuals…one subplot has to do with human trafficking. I wanted subplots that ties to the murder but still reflect those sexual deviances.

  2. Great advice. I do a lot of subplots for character development and to build up to main plot twists. The multiple stories angle with those stories eventually converging is a useful tool to. It gives various characters the chance to shine before they have to share the spotlight. I think that’s a major part of a subplot’s purpose. At least in an ensemble story, it allows individual characters to be focused on and evolved. This evolution does effect the main plot because that character changes.

  3. Thanks for the useful post! I’m finishing up a novel with multiple characters and it can get a bit hectic with all their stories in the midst of the main plot. I really like the idea of making sure the subplots support the main plot in one way or another. It gives me another thing to search for when I’m revising my book. One thing I see happening or feel rather is that one subplot is actually a little more interesting than the main plot. What do I do then? haha

  4. The timing of this could not have been better. I was outlining my story for NaNo…(yeah, I’m starting a bit late, but hey, if this is day 1 then arguably I can still use the first two days in December since it’s 50,000 -in 30 days. That’s what I’m going with anyways, haha.)

    Anyways, my story is very complex and the subplots altogether make up the main plot. (She battles in different worlds, but then returns to “this world” where she finds the next she is suppose to enter. But through each world she goes through a journey.) As I was working on my outline I was thinking, “Oi. I have quite a lot of subplots to keep track, balance, and somehow tie together…how am I going to do this?”
    Then literately the moment after I thought this I got an email titled this post.

    So thank you very much! haha.

    • WOW, talk about timely! That’s awesome!!! I wish you the best of luck with NaNoWriMo! I did it last year…. it was fun though crazy! 🙂 Outlining really helped me write fast 🙂 And I love the journey/ multiple journeys as a story foundation 🙂

  5. I think your point about theme is a really good one. It’ll make the plots feel like they fit together, even if the reader doesn’t notice why, and if they do get the thematic connection it will make them feel that little bit smarter for it, making them more satisfied with the reading experience.

    • I love what you say here! Sometimes it’s all about the intangibles…. readers don’t have to pick up on why something works to just feel that things are clicking into place in a good way.

    • I also like to guide that reader who likes to “solve everything” (which to be honest is often me, haha) down a path in which they feel that they figured it out, and keep leading them down that path and then end up at a completely different (yet, oh so perfectly fitting) destination.

      I feel like I’m laying a trail of slightly-hidden cookies. They eat one, feel a little “smarter,” give them another…and another…and once they feel so confident in themselves and that they have me predicted- BAM. Unexpected twist/result. I use their pride which HAS to know if they’re right, as one way to keep them reading.

      Many readers battle with their love to solve things and their love of surprises. They lose some admiration of a story if they “saw that miles ago.” They may feel like they’ve wasted their time to come to a conclusion they already figured out. So I agree, satisfy them with some snacks and rewards along the way…the more they think they know where they’re going, the more shocking/exciting it will be when they’ve arrived.

      • I love suprises too! Though I always tried to figure out whodunit reading Agatha Christie 🙂 I think what you say here is very true and very real. LOTS to think about!!!

      • I like that idea of the smart cookie trail, and of using it to strike a balance between letting the reader feel clever and letting them feel surprised. I’ve heard plenty of people complain about endings that were too obvious, and even felt that disappointment myself. What’s perfect is the finale that’s surprising yet inevitable (can’t remember where I got that phrase from so probably Writing Excuses).

  6. I was just thinking about this today when I finished the book The Help. Stockett has a lot of subplots that she weaves into the story, that eventually tie in to bring in and feed into the main story. Like HP and GOT, I am always wondering how they make it tie back AND make it relevant at the same time.

    Great advice here! This has me thinking on it. You rock, Victoria!

  7. Great advice as usual. I’ve also struggled with subplots and whether or not they crowded my novel. I usually try to tie my subplot to the main character’s emotional arc in some way. For example, the love interest’s mysterious past which gradually unfolds; a character who is similar in temperament to the main character who has to make a decision—something that reflects where the main character might be or might need to go. I cut two subplots, because they took my novel on an emotional tangent that detracted from my main character’s story.

    • That’s a great connection… a emotional arc can really tie characterization together and give a full picture of who a person is.

      “Once Upon a Time” ties flashbacks in with modern-time storylines often using that approach! If you don’t watch that show you might find it’s structure useful.

      • I love that Once Upon a Time ties the plots with very structured knots, yet not so tight that they merely tell the same story in different costumes and settings. I’ve noticed that either:

        -similar parallels are happening TO the person being followed in both settings, but the characters involved with or “acting on” the center person are not always the same. [Such as when David was torn between MaryM and Kathryn, and then “Charming” was torn between the chance to save the kingdom and remaining with his mother. The same character is having to make a difficult, life-altering decision regarding love and loyalty.]
        OR
        -the same characters are involved but they are following a different plot.
        [I can’t think of a specific example at the moment, but really whenever two people are interacting in the “modern-world” and then their backstory is simultaneously being told.]

        It’s consistent, yet flexible.

        • LOVE your breakdown here! I’d forgotten about that Charming episode. Loved that one. A really good analysis of how the show is structured. You’ve got me thinking back to season one now 🙂

      • (replying to your other comment but I didn’t see a reply button.)
        I JUST noticed the picture in your post after comparing Once Upon a Time to a knot, haha.

        I often fall into what I call the “gridlock trap” when I am parallel plots or LOOSELY basing a story after another. I start to lineup everything, and make this tight equation and begin to retell the story in another way. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE these types of stories (From Once Upon a Time to Sherlock in modern-day) but when my goal is to create a unique character I have to be careful how much he/she takes after a character ‘model.’ Another reason why Once made me look at this differently is how they intertwine the fairy-tale stories we all love, even if it isn’t EXACTLY how we remember them (for example how Red IS the wolf).

        Anyways, it just showed me that the stories still work without such an OCD “translation” of the story, haha. UNLESS there is representation and a point is trying to be made. I have a short story [on hold] which is pretty much Agatha Christie, E.A. Poe, Dante’s Inferno, and perhaps a dash of Genesis all mixed up in a pot. I’m in a gridlock point with it, but I know that if I fill out this plot “suduko” it will be VERY strong. I just have to solve this puzzle…

        And I hope you don’t mind all my long comments on just about every post I read, haha. You just get my mind going! 😀

        • I don’t mind them at all! I like you distinction between inspiration and a verbatim retelling a lot. And your short story sounds really, really fascinating!!!

          Red as the wolf is one of my favorite twists in Once 🙂 I also love how Rumplestiltskin is both Belle’s beast and Hook’s crocodile, and Hook’s backstory and how he is really not so bad in comparison with Peter Pan!

          Also what they did with Pinocchio growing up was really cool!

        • Ahh, I meant to mention my family is only half-way through season two. So I’m going to ignore Peter Pan ;). I feel bad because they wanted to watch it last night but I had to be discipline and write :/. We left off when Cora dies.

          At first I did not like the idea of Rumple being the beast. Only because the point of Beauty & the Beast is that he was only a beast on the outside. But Rumple was especially portrayed as very much a beast on the inside- and he was. I could not stand the first time they introduced him before he was the Dark One, since I didn’t want to give him my pity. Same with Regina. They didn’t deserve it.

          But that is what a writer gets to do…play with the emotions of the readers/viewers, and sometimes against their will.

        • For sure!!! Playing with reader emotions, in a responsible way for a good purpose, is really the whole point of being a writer somedays…. for me at least. I didn’t mean to spoil anything, and I hope I didn’t! :-/

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  9. Thanks so much Victoria. Lots of really helpful advice particularly:
    SUBPLOTS SHOULD HAVE SOME IMPACT ON THE MAIN PLOT

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  14. Reading this last night I had a breakthrough in thinking through the plot of my second draft. The main plot and the subplot were already connected, but I realized that connection wouldn’t be clear until the climax. I realized I need to set up the protagonist’s boyfriend (whom the subplot concerns) as an idealized Adam/every man in the eyes of the protagonist, to give his actions more obvious thematic weight for the reader. Good post!

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