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A subplot is a side story that occurs at the same time as the main plotline. It is less important than the central storyline.

Despite this, a subplot can still add a great deal to one’s writing. It is sometimes called a secondary story or a minor story in that it contains all the elements of a normal plot but on a miniaturized scale. It likely won’t run for the entire length of the narrative and there might be more than one subplot in a longer novel. 

Subplot pronunciation: suhb-plaht
Subplot in literation definition and examples

Definition of Subplot 

Subplots are secondary plot lines that complicate novels or longer short stories. These secondary stories occur at the same time as the central plot and can have some or no influence on the central plotline. A subplot is usually used to reveal more details about the characters, complicate the world they live in, or provide the reader with other important information for their understanding of upcoming events. Subplots also allow readers to draw closer to characters and understand them and their conflicts better. 

Examples of Subplots in Literature 

It by Stephen King 

In this famous horror novel, King adds numerous short subplots to his central plotline. These provide readers with information about the character’s pasts, their family members, and most importantly, the history of Derry in which the events all occur. One of the best examples from the novel is the mini-subplot King crafts around The Black Spot, a nightclub with mostly black patrons. The story of the nightclub and the fire that eventually destroyed it served as a way to demonstrate the darkness in the town and the unavoidable presence of death and destruction. Here are a few lines from the novel in which King describes the aftermath of the fire: 

The final toll was a hundred and two. Eighty-eight of the dead were children. On the following Wednesday, while the city still lay in stunned silent contemplation of the tragedy, a woman found the head of nine-year-old Robert Dohay caught in the limbs of her back-yard apple tree. There was chocolate on the Dohay lad’s teeth and blood in his hair. He was the last of the known dead. Eight children and one adult were never accounted for.

Will Hanlon, the father of one of the main characters in the novel, was one of the only survivors of the fire. He was saved by a reoccurring character, Dick Halloran. King often uses these subplots to connect one event to the next and help create a foreboding atmosphere in his novels. 

The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien

An example of a longer subplot can be found in the second novel in the Lord of the Rings series. In this novel, readers follow the central plotline with Frodo and Sam. They also spend time with Merry and Pippin, who are captured by Orcs and eventually escape. One of the notable scenes occurs when the Hobbits meet the Ents, walking and talking trees. These lines are from this section of the novel and demonstrate how Tolkien chose to spend time on this plotline. He emphasizes the changes that have come over Middle Earth. 

Those were the broad days! Time was when I could walk and sing all day and hear no more than the echo of my own voice in the hollow hills. The woods were like the woods of Lothlórien, only thicker, stronger, younger. And the smell of the air!

The Ent speaking here, Treebeard, understands the world in a way the Hobbits don’t. He knew it before the darkness started spreading. 

Explore J.R.R. Tolkien’s poetry and Tolkien’s best books.

Why Do Writers Use Subplots? 

Writers use subplots in their stories when they want to make their literary worlds more complicated. They add depth to a story. Meaning, characters become more complex and interesting, settings and events are also expanded and explored in more detail. All in all, subplots should make the story as engaging as possible. It should be noted that while subplots should do all of these things, sometimes they do the exact opposite. If a writer spends too much time on a subplot, the reader might lose interest in the novel. 

Adding Subplots to Your Writing

There are several different types of subplots one might add to their writing. Therefore, it’s important to understand what one wants to accomplish with this extra storyline. Will it be a romantic subplot exploring a character’s past or present relationships? Or, could it be a contrasting subplot, allowing the reader to explore a secondary character’s experience (while relating them to the main character)?

When adding subplots, they must stay secondary. One doesn’t want to spend so much time on them that they start to take over the main narrative. But, that being said, these subplots do need to have a narrative arc. They should follow the basic plot structure that one’s larger narrative does (consider Freytag’s pyramid as a basic structure). The best subplots are those that provide readers with interesting information about characters and events. For example, a writer might want to explore the history of a town to ensure readers understand how important a certain central plot point is in relation. 

Also, consider how subplots might add tension to a story. For example, exploring an antagonist’s background and providing the reader with examples of how violent or conniving they’ve been in the past. This foreshadows how they’re going to act and what the protagonist is going to deal with. 


What is a subplot? 

A secondary or minor plotline that a writer creates to run alongside the main plotline. 

How do you find the subplot?

By paying attention to the mini plotlines that branch off from the central plot.

How are subplots used?

Subplots are used to provide readers with more information about characters, events, and places. They also create tension and can foreshadow what’s to come.

What is a subplot example? 

Magwitch’s story in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. It reveals more about Pip’s history and why events turned out the way they did. 

How many subplots should a novel have?

It depends on the novel and the writer’s intentions. If it’s a short novel with a very intense plotline, then it may not be necessary to have any. With a longer novel numerous subplots are used to help the reader understand the setting and characters better.

  • Plot: a connected sequence of events that make up a novel, poem, play, film, television show, and other narrative works.
  • Cliffhanger: a narrative device that’s used to end a story abruptly before an action or segment the plot is concluded.
  • Digression: occurs when the writer interrupts the main plotline to contribute additional details.
  • Coherence: the properties of well-organized writing. This includes grammar, sentence structure, and plot elements.
  • Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
  • Climax: the point at which the main character is forced to contend with the central conflict of the story.
  • Foreshadowing: occurs near the end of the story, following the climax and before the resolution.

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