Understanding Plots and Subplots in Novels

What is Plot?

There’s no such thing as plot. Plot is the name writers and editors have labeled the story that takes place on the page. I’m going to talk about plot in a nebulous sense because it is. But I’ll also tell you how I see and use plot.

How you use plot, like everything else about your book, is up to you, though.

The simplest way a lot of writers think about plot is as a series of events. This type of writing tends to create a story where things just happen. There’s nothing much connecting them and there aren’t arcs. As a reader and writer, I’m not a fan of these types of stories.

I want to feel when I read. I want my readers to feel when they read my stories. To create emotions within our readers, we have to utilize a lot of elements all in connection with one another to create resonance throughout our work.

We can think about plot as the journey of a character(s) in relation to the theme or overall story intent. If you’re writing a story about how a dragon gets its fire, then the plot would focus on the events related to this journey.

It’s helpful when writing, though, to think of plot in two ways. These ways, oftentimes, are referred to as A Plot and B Plot. A Plot is the outward events and actions of the story while the B Plot is the internal journey of the character and the events that are important to that story.

For example, in the story about a dragon getting its fire, the A Plot could be the dragon going on quests to search for a teacher to teach it how to blow flames, while the B Plot could focus on the dragon learning that it doesn’t need to blow flames to be a dragon by meeting other characters that help them understand and see their dragon nature.

Ask yourself, which type of plot or idea of plot makes sense for your story.

How to Design Plot

As storytellers, we are essentially designers. How we choose to set our stories on the page or screen is an act of deliberate design meant to elicit particular emotions out of our readers. This is how I view plot or the idea of plot.

There are helpful guides out there called beat sheets that break down plot points of particular stories into easy fill-in sheets. I find these helpful whether or not my plot or story fits exactly into them. They allow me to see how my story is building and what elements are at work.

Beat sheets are similar to story outlines except for these focus on particular and specific story elements common to certain genres. The most popular ones are those put out by Save the Cat and the Story Grid. Beat sheets can seem rigid and not actually fit your story or the vision for your book. Instead, I want to focus on ways to strengthen whatever plot design you choose to go with or without.

Reoccurring themes and symbols can allow you to control the emotions of your readers. Give your character an object they cling to and care about and take it away when they need it the most. Your reader will feel sympathy, anger, or vindication, depending on how you set it up.

Fill your story with life and emotion by writing stories with subtext and evocative language that conjures not only images but feelings. Visceral and clear images are what paint pictures in readers’ minds.

At the end of the day, understanding the story you want to tell, the places you want it to happen, and the characters who you want to fill it is how you make sense of your plot.

What is Subplot?

If plot doesn’t exist, then what the hell are subplots? They also don’t really exist. They are just the other parts of the story that aren’t directly related to the main telling. This is an underlying part of the story that can connect characters, settings, or other elements of the story.

Subplots are useful at deepening specific themes, developing certain characters and their relationships, or showing other aspects of the world. It’s also a great way to add extra tension and conflict in the story’s progression. While your reader is reading through the main plot, there will be a little voice in their head that reminds them of that other thing also happening in the world.

You can only have as many subplots as the page or word count allows. If there are too many, they will detract from the main plot and be more of a hindrance. Epic stories that go over 130,000-words tend to have tons of subplots that are all sort of connected.

This works great for that type of work because, with the aid of subplots, these writers can create wonderful moments within their stories where all characters and plots meet or ride so close together, their readers feel the tension and anticipation the author wants them to.

How to Design Subplots

Use subplots to help develop secondary or side characters and other aspects of the story by allowing them space on the page. Devote actual scenes and moments to these side or secondary characters and places.

Pro Tip: Have the subplots show different parts of your main character or storyline to create a multitextured story and a fully-fleshed-out world.

The subplots don’t have to meet up eventually with the main plot, but they do have to have some connection that develops the story. You should also aim to conclude all of them by the end unless you are writing a series. Then you can use your subplots as lead ons and teasers of what is to come later in your series.


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