Having lots going on in a story sounds like it’ll make the story that much more interesting right? It might, but first you have to know what kind of plot additions you’re going to make.

There are both plot layers and sub-plots and while the terms sound similar, other than both have to do with plot, conflict and throwing obstacles at characters, they’re quite different.

The difference is in the character. A plot layer has to do with the main character while a sub-plot is all about a character other than the protagonist.

A sub-plot follows its own plot chart with all of the necessary plot points. Incorporating a well-developed sub-plot that is closely tied to the main plot can be challenging because you’ve got to somehow figure out how to interweave the two stories.

Examples of Sub-Plots

Not many popular young adult novels have sub-plots, especially if they’re stand alone novels and not a series. It really does take a big story to fully develop sub-plots

For example, neither The Fault in Our Stars or The Hunger Games have sub-plots in them. Both of them have additional complications and plot layers for their main characters, but there are no true sub-plots where we go into another point of view and follow an entire plot cycle for another character.

Sure we know about other character’s and their struggles, like Isaac going blind the TFIOS, and Peeta having to go into the arena with Katniss in Hunger Games, but those story lines aren’t their own separate story that somehow collides with the main story lines. Do you see the difference?

The Harry Potter series has multiple sub-plots. The main plot through each novel is Harry trying to vanquish Voldemort, but J.K. Rowling did a masterful job weaving them all together throughout all seven novels, an amazing feat.

Snape has his own story with all the requisite pieces of  a great sub-plot: a character who’s closely connected to the main character and an entire plot of their own which collides with the main character’s story.

Sirius as well as some members of the Weasley family also have their own sub-plots.

Similarly, The Lord of the Rings has several sub-plots. The main plot is Frodo trying to destroy the ring, but there’s the sub-plot of Merry and Pippen who battle to save the Shire. There’s also the story of Aragon and Legolas fighting the Orcs. Ultimately all of these sub-plots come together and create a picture of the dark evil that everyone is fighting as it envelops Middle Earth.

How to Develop a Sub-Plot

If after reading the above examples, you’re convinced that your story must have a sub-plot to succeed you might be wondering how to go about it.

1) Choose the character on whom you’d like to focus your sub-plot. The character you choose must be close to the main character in some way because their story lines will intersect at some point. You also need to choose a character that you really want to develop further, so choose someone interesting that you like.

2) Fully develop your chosen character as you would your main protagonist. You really want to know this character because you’re going to be putting him/her into conflict, and you need to know how they’ll respond. And you’ll be writing the whole sub-plot from their POV, so you gotta know ’em.

3) Figure out how the sub-plot will ultimately intersect with and affect the main plot line. They must come together at some point.

4) Develop your sub-plot with the requisite plot points: an inciting incident with a compelling character, rising action and increasing complications, the crisis moment, the climax, and the resolution.

Woah – that’s kind of a big list of “to-do’s” to make a sub-plot work. But a good sub-plot really does take a lot of planning.

Here’s a brief video clip of J.K. Rowling discussing her plotting, with a brief look at her notebook.

On a final note, when you’re writing a short story, you won’t need to address either plot layers or sub-plots (though you might) because you don’t have the time to fully develop them. Additional plot layers and sub-plots are really for longer pieces, like novellas or novels.

In the comments below, share your favorite sub-plot, either one you’ve come up with or one from your favorite story. Why did you love it? Maybe your ideas will help a fellow writer.

Happy Writing,