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 keep your eye on it to 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. Often a minor subplot in one novella leads to the main plot in the subsequent 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 at least 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 haven’t, you might want to check out the 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.
Subplots must follow the same general guidelines as the main plot. They will need to have a beginning, middle and satisfying ending, but remember to make sure they don’t overshadow the main plot. They must in some way relate to the main plot.
In the movie, Robin Hood; Prince of Thieves, starring Kevin Costner, the Sheriff of Nottingham obviously played a huge role, but his sub plot and strong characterization nearly overpowered the story of Robin Hood. Many critics at the time of the movie’s release noted that it could very well have been titled The Sheriff of Nottingham, which would have been more accurate than the chosen title.
Just remember that your sub-plots should not be in competition with your main plot. It is only there to support the major plotline.