A subplot is a minor, supporting side story for the main plot. It may have a connection to the main plot in time, place, or theme and often includes supporting characters other than the protagonist or antagonist.
You can tell a subplot by the fact that it takes up less of the action than the main plot. Less significant events occur and involve less impact on the main plot and characters. Just as with a main plot, the subplot needs to be resolved by the end of the book.
One thing to realize, though, is that the shorter the book, the fewer subplots should be present.
- Novellas usually contain around 20,000 words and barely have time to develop a main plot, so if you choose to include a subplot, make sure it doesn’t overshadow the main plot. It is generally best not to have a subplot in a novella. It can be done, but usually only in a novella collection with three or four related stories in one book.
- Short novels of 45,000 – 55,000 words can have one, not-too-significant subplot.
- Regular length novels of around 75,000 to 90,000 can have more than one subplot, but generally have one well-developed subplot.
- Any novels over 90,000 words need to be scrutinized closely, as there aren’t a lot of publishers who will publish an extra-long novel. Make sure you have written the book with a specific publisher in mind. If you don’t have one in mind, you might consider purchasing Christian Writer’s Market Guide. This will tell you which, if any, publishers accept a book that length.
If there are no publishers listed in the Guide who will take a book of this length and genre, then you have got some cutting to do.
The sub-plot must follow all the rules that pertain to the main plot in every way, and must be relatable to the main plot but must not overshadow it. The characters involved in the sub-plot must not be more intricate, more likeable, and more interesting than the main characters in the book.
An example of this is in the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, starring Kevin Costner. While I’m not recommending this movie due to the dark sub-plot involving witchcraft, the characters were well-done. In fact, the character of the Sheriff of Nottingham was more interesting than Robin Hood, and many critics of that time commented on how he upstaged Robin. If your story is about Robin Hood, then he’d better be the most interesting character in the book.
Sub-plots give the story depth and interest, but remember to keep them under control so they don’t outshine the main plot.