In the post discussing how to address a first draft of a novel which is too short, I suggested various strategies like considering who the novel is really about, and why your main character is compelled to action at this moment in time. Another powerful way to augment your novel is to use subplots.

What are subplots?

Usually, your story has a main story line. It is what you describe when someone asks you what your novel is about.

Subplots are subordinate stories which flow from and feed back into the main plot. They usually use a secondary strand of characters, i.e. not your protagonist. They often provide depth or important information to the main plot.

An example

Your main story is about a spy during the Cold War who infiltrates a top secret facility not to steal its stash of ultra-important documents.

Pretty standard stuff.

But you can use subplots which make the novel richer and more complex.

Let’s say your spy’s nemesis is Colonel Rudger. And while we’re at it, let’s name the spy, too. How about Harold?

So Rudger suspects Harold but it’s just a gut feeling. While Harold is making his plans to infiltrate, Rudger is the star of a sub-plot on how he is going to catch Harold. Along the way, you develop Rudger’s character. Does he constantly doubt himself? Does he constantly want to test his theory à la Hamlet? Or is he blind to signals that he’s on the wrong track?

You can easily see how this sub and the main plot come together for an exciting finale.

In most novels, there are often numerous subplots. Not all of them have to figure in the climax but they can be vehicles for illustrating or deepening various aspects of the main plot. Harold’s girlfriend is tired of his neglect, not of course realizing that a day job and a spy job leave little time for romance. She is convinced Harold is seeing someone else and tries to track him which causes all kinds of problems. She doesn’t have to figure in the ending but the relationship probably needs to be resolved in some way. He breaks off with her because he needs to devote time to spying? Or he involves her in his secret? Either way, this subplot can provide twists and turns along the way.

Where are my sub-plots?

They are easier to find than you might think.

Consider any of the secondary characters. All of them have potential to be a subplot.

Ways to choose might be a character whose motivation has been told rather than shown. Show not only what he did in more detail but why. Or Harold might have a troublesome family. A sister perhaps who is the last word in nosy. A subplot could be Harold fending off his sister’s inquisitiveness.

A story with just a main plot can come off as flat or two dimensional, but subplots in add complexity and depth. This makes the story more engaging for readers.

And is a great way to up the word count. Not of course what the artist in us is focused on. But doesn’t hurt.