Stories are complicated, twisty, multi-faceted things. At some point, in many of the best stories, it feels like everything is in complete chaos, and then, seemingly all at once, it’s as if the chaos has come to a head in a way that makes everything line up perfectly.

Great writers do this intentionally, weaving tension into their stories and then paying it off at the exact right moment.

And one of the best tools in a writer’s tool belt is the subplot.

Subplot: Literary Definition, Examples, and Writing Tips

But what is a subplot? How can you spot it in the books and stories you love most? And if you’re a writer, how do you use it to tell better stories?

In this article, I’m sharing everything you need to know about subplots. I’ll start with the definition of the literary term, then show you how it fits into a story structure, examples of some of my favorite subplots, and even tips from my own experience on writing novels with subplots.

Ready to get started?

Stories Have More Than One Plot Line

Good stories always contain one core plot.

However, most stories have multiple plot lines, almost always two and sometimes three:

  • The external plot
  • The internal plot
  • The subplot

We’ve talked elsewhere about internal and external plots, but what are subplots?

Subplot Definition

A subplot is a secondary storyline or plot within a story, sometimes involving the same characters and sometimes involving characters related to the main characters.

The Most Popular Types of Subplots

By far, the most present and popular subplots across all genres of stories are …

Any guesses?

If you thought love stories, you were right.

Love plots fit perfectly into almost every kind of story, from thrillers to adventure stories and even into love stories themselves (Pride and Prejudice, anyone?).

Their pervasiveness is so extreme that subplots are almost synonymous with love plots.

Examples of love story subplots span the classics to modern bestsellers, and include:

  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  • The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (and every subsequent book in the series—it took her to book four to fit one in though!)
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • Frozen (Disney film)
  • Crazy Stupid Love (film)

And many more.

The proliferation of love story subplots makes sense, too, especially from a commercial perspective. The romance genre is one of the most, if not the most, commercially successful genres, and having a romantic element in the story can spice up the plot and sales.

All that being said, authors are by no means required to use a love story subplot if they don’t want to, and many of the most successful books of all time, both from a literary and commercial perspective, do not involve romance at all.

Other types of subplots include mystery, horror, adventure, performance, and even buddy plots, which are love stories centered on friendship and not romantic love.

Subplots Center On Values

As we’ve talked about elsewhere, stories center around six core value scales:

  1. Life vs. Death
  2. Life vs. a Fate Worse than Death
  3. Love vs. Hate
  4. Accomplishment vs. Failure
  5. Maturity vs. Naiveté
  6. Good vs. Evil

The love story subplot sits on the love vs. hate value scale. An adventure story subplot, on the other hand, would rest on the life vs. death scale, and a performance plot—perhaps one about a sports team competing in a large tournament—would rest in the accomplishment vs. fate scale.

Finding the core values of the subplot, and of the larger plot as a whole, that you’re analyzing can help you discover what kind of subplot you’re working with.

Why Subplots Are So Useful

How do you find a subplot, though? And how can you tell the difference between the main plot and the subplot?

Stories tend to drag in the middle. Subplots were invented by enterprising writers to add intrigue to the story and keep it moving when things got slow.

And they work!

That’s why you can often find subplots in the second act, after the inciting incident and the protagonist’s acceptance of their call to action, just when things could otherwise begin to slow down, as you’ll see below.

Where Subplots Fit Within a Story

Before we talk more about where subplots fit within stories, it’s helpful to know the six core elements of a story. They are:

You can click each for their definition and more details.

A traditional three-act story has one core element of each type, but it also has each element in every act, as so:

Act 1: Introduce the world and characters, and begin the main plot

  • Core Exposition
  • Core Inciting Incident
  • Rising Action
  • Crisis
  • Climax
  • Denouement

Act 2: Complicate the plot through the rising action

  • Exposition
  • Inciting Incident
  • Core Rising Action
  • Core Crisis
  • Climax
  • Denouement

Act 3: Pay off the plot with the climax and resolution

  • Exposition
  • Inciting Incident
  • Rising Action
  • Core Crisis
  • Core Climax
  • Core Denouement

I’ve marked the six elements of the core plot above. However, as you can see, there are more expositions and rising actions than there are core plots, right? That, to some degree, is filled by the subplot. See below:

Act 1: Introduce the world and characters, and begin the main plot

  • Core Exposition
  • Core Inciting Incident
  • Rising Action
  • Crisis
  • Climax
  • Denouement

Act 2: Complicate the plot through the rising action

  • Subplot Exposition
  • Subplot Inciting Incident
  • Core Rising Action Subplot Rising Action
  • Core Crisis
  • Climax / Subplot Crisis (sometimes)
  • Denouement

Act 3: Pay off the plot with the climax and resolution

  • Exposition
  • Inciting Incident
  • Rising Action
  • Crisis
  • Core Climax
  • Core Denouement / Subplot Climax and Denouement

In the three act structure, subplots usually, but not always, begin right at the second act, like we see marked above and underlined. They often progress quickly in the inciting incident and rising action.

Then, in the climactic moment of act two, just when you think everything should go well, a giant question mark is thrown into them.

In a love story subplot, this is often when we wonder if the couple will actually get together in the end. Can they get past the things that are keeping them apart and finally connect?

In an adventure subplot, this might be a major setback, when you wonder if the goal the characters are working toward will ever be achieved.

Whatever happens, the subplot, which seemed to be going so strong, all of a sudden stops dead and the audience is left to forget about it for a while.

The subplot might come back briefly here and there through to the third act, but it’s usually not resolved until the final scene, one of the most effective moments to bring things together, when the subplot has its climactic moment and final denouement and resolution.

The above is just an example, and subplots find their ways in many other shapes and sizes. However, this can be a good general template for using a subplot in your story.

Use Subplots to Fill In Your Story

A great subplot will not save your lagging story. For a story to work, both the core plot and subplot must be working together to draw the reader through the rises and falls in the values of the story arc.

However, even the best stories can feel somewhat empty in the middle act alone. After all, it’s easy for an author to run out of ideas, and for the characters to run out of drama to create.

Fill that space with a subplot, and let it carry the burden of the middle of your story.

What are some of your favorite subplots in books or films? Let us know in the comments section.

PRACTICE

Writing a subplot is just like writing a plot, only they are smaller and coupled with the main story. So let’s practice writing subplots with the following creative writing exercise:

First, outline a subplot based on the following outline of a core plot:

Core Plot

Exposition:

Inciting Incident:

Rising Action:

Crisis:

Climax:

Denouement:

Subplot

Exposition: _______

Inciting Incident: ____

Rising Action: ______

Crisis: ___________

Climax: __________

Denouement: _______

Once you’ve finished your outline, choose one element—either the exposition, inciting incident, rising action, crisis, climax, or denouement—and set a timer for fifteen minutes. Then start writing your scene.

When your time is up, post your practice in the comments section for feedback. And if you post, be sure to give feedback to at least three other writers.

Happy writing!

Joe Bunting
Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. You can follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).
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