How To Write Subplots (Part I)

In one of my first blog pieces, I put forward the five questions that writers should ask themselves at the start of their writing journey to help them build a plot. Now, the time has come for us to discuss how to write subplots.

Definition of Plots And Subplots

Simply put, a plot is just a sequence of events that push the narrative to its end. So, if that is the definition for plots, then what are subplots?

A subplot is defined by as ‘a secondary or subordinate plot in a play, novel, or similar work.’ Thus, a plot can be viewed as a tree-trunk, and a subplot a branch. But rather than going away from its centre (or off on a tangent), the branch of the subplot folds back and coils round the trunk, thereby strengthening the centre (the plot).

Different Types of Subplots

Authors have used a variety of different subplots to strengthen their plots and make their stories more interesting. We shall look at examples to show us how to write subplots.

I want to add in at this point, though, that there are no limits to how many subplots writers can insert into their stories. That’s up to the writer to decide. Of course, the more subplots there are the richer the story will be. All the writer has to do (and this is no simple matter) is to make sure that each subplot is linked to the plot and, therefore, not used as filler.

A Civil War Under The Shadow Of An Apocalypse

Apocalypses are epic in a biblical sense. The word, in itself, spells impending doom for all of mankind and the world as we know it. Whether through a villain, a flood, fire, climate change or a virus, the audience reads/watches as catastrophe comes at the world like a meteorite from the heavens.

Nevertheless, while the main threat to the existence of the protagonist(s) is the impending doom, a subplot is him bickering and squabbling his allies and enemies. (Indeed, their quarrels always seem so petty in light of the reckoning that’s coming for them.)

Example – White Walkers, Dragons And Petty Squabbling

How to write subplots - Denaerys killing White Walkers
Denaerys Targaryan and her dragons torching the White Walkers in Season 6 Episode 6 of the TV-show Game of Thrones.

The over-all plot of A Song of Ice & Fire is the eventual confrontation between the White Walkers/the Others that are located North Beyond The Wall, and Denaerys Targaryan’s dragons, which are currently in Essos, across The Narrow Sea to the east. At some point toward the conclusion of the series, this will be the final conflict that will have a significant bearing on who will sit on the Iron Throne at the end of the series.

Therefore, all else that happens under this conflict within the series are merely intriguing subplots. This includes Robb Stark’s war with the Lannisters; Jaime Lannister’s incestuous love for his twin, Cersei; Joffrey’s assassination and Tyrion’s trial; Lady Stoneheart; Arya’s time with the Faceless Men; events in Meereen; Euron Greyjoy’s plans; and the Dornish and Northern Conspiracies.

Nevertheless, Robb Stark’s war with the Lannisters is worth discussing in more depth because this subplot could be a plot in and of itself. (Almost certainly, it would be in any other series.) The reason I wish to highlight Robb’s war is because it shows us how building alliances can add a fascinating dimension (subplot) to a story.

Build Alliances To Achieve An Objective

How to write subplots? Building alliances with rivals can be one of the most intriguing of subplots. Wars cannot be won alone. Leaders must lead armies. Invariably, this means forging alliances.

Alliances, however, must come at a price (so as to have consequence for the plot). By making a deal, we see what our hero is willing to sacrifice to achieve his objective. Plus, we can see how he treats his new allies, what they want from, and what happens if our protagonist does not keep to his agreements.

Example – Robb Stark & The Freys

After Lord Eddard Stark is imprisoned for treason by the Lannisters in A Game of Thrones, Robb Stark, his son, leads the Northmen to rescue his father. On the way south, they decide that they need to reach Riverrun. But the only way to do this is by crossing the bridge at The Twins. This is owned by Lord Walder of House Frey, who is renowned for being bitter, cantankerous and for siding with the winners.

Nevertheless, Robb’s mother, Lady Catelyn Stark, negotiates a deal with Lord Walder. The Northmen can cross the bridge and, in exchange, Robb will marry one of his daughters. This seems apt, as it enables Robb to continue his war with the Lannisters; and plausible because it is the kind of deal that used to happen in medieval times.

Moreover, the Frey subplot in A Song of Ice & Fire is brilliant for two further reasons. One, it shows the power dynamics in the society that it depicts. It highlights the weakness of (supposed) great Houses when confronted by practical realities (and the avaricious nature of alleged smaller Houses when given an opportunity).

Two, when Robb Stark breaks the agreement with the Freys, we see how the subplot links to his war with the Lannisters. Through cunning and treachery from Lord Walder, Lord Tywin Lannister orchestrates the Red Wedding and the massacre of the Northern armies.

The irascible Lord Walder Frey. His subplot with the Starks is fascinating as it depicts the nature of (medieval) war and some of the worst aspects of the era.

A Love Triangle

When considering how to write subplots, perhaps a love triangle won’t be far from your mind. It is a prominent feature of the YA Fantasy genre.

For a love triangle to be done well, the central protagonist must choose between one of the two people who helped him defeat the antagonist by the end of the narrative.

Example – Katniss, Peeta and Gale

how to write subplots - Peeta and Gale
Katniss cannot have both. So who will she choose? Peeta (left) or Gale (right)?

Possibly one of the most famous love triangles comes from Suzanne Collins’ dystopian YA Fantasy series, The Hunger Games Trilogy. Throughout the course of the series, Katniss Everdeen, the main character, becomes the Mockingjay, the symbolic figurehead of the revolution against President Snow.

Along the way, she finds herself falling romantically for Peeta and Gale, two guys who are both active in the revolution. Ultimately, what makes her decide to go for Peeta is because Gale becomes war-weary toward the end and loses track of his earlier ideals. This results in him no longer caring for collateral damage in the war against Snow.

In the final confrontation, Gale sets off bombs indiscriminately, one of which kills Prim, Katniss’ sister. Unsurprisingly, Katniss cannot forgive him for this. Thus, she chooses Peeta once the struggle against Snow is over.

Unsure If New Friends Are Trustworthy

We will discuss this one and several others in the next blog post. In the meantime, I hope you have enjoyed this article on how to write subplots, and found it useful.

Let me know what you think,


PS: If you enjoyed this blog post on how to write subplots, and want to be the first to receive Part II, fill in the short form below:

Leave a Reply