Understanding the Role of Subplots When Structuring Your Story

You often find writers and reviewers speaking of a story’s layers — whether they viewed those layers as in-depth or lacking.

Layers might be defined as the presence of subplots.

Subplots, when broken down, are often scenes strung together that reveal a closer look at a hero’s personal life in a way that exposes deeper themes.

So themes, subplots, layers, though not necessarily interchangeable in meaning, are all integral to a story’s depth and growth. But how do they get there? More importantly why do we need them — what role do they play?

The role of a healthy subplot is to provoke a greater connection between character and reader.

In short, a subplot is there to make the reader care.

The more deeply a reader invests in a character and his situation, the more he or she will enjoy the story and come back to you for more.

While most primary plots are rather straight-forward, subplots are often subtle, hinting at character strengths and weaknesses, at their personal problems outside the greater action or adventure plot. Subplots might explore a hero’s spiritual struggles, his dysfunctional home life, troubles with co-workers at his day job, his unresolved childhood issues, and so on. While the greater plot of a story might be about an international spy attempting to thwart an assassination of a world leader, a subplot might find him trying to keep his spying life from his pregnant wife, or maybe he suffers from nightmares of his first love’s murder that prevent him from sleeping, so while he’s trying to stay alive and also keep a world leader alive, he’s also physically exhausted, haunted by his dreams, and trying to keep the bad guys from finding and harming his family who have no idea what he does for a living.

See how those layers were just built?

To build layers — subplots — in a story, a writer has to look beyond the primary plot (the adventure plot in the example) into the hero’s personal life and emotions.

Who is he really?

What does he care about the most?

Use back-story to mine out these answers. Where did the hero grow up? Attend school? Vacation? Who did he marry — or miss marrying? What does he eat? What are his personal likes or dislikes? What kind of quirks or issues plague him? What does he wish for? What would he rather be doing than what he actually is doing? What is he really bad at? What is he really good at? What does he do on a normal day? What people are important to him, or would be important if he could only…?

As you think about these things, building blocks for subplots might appear.

For instance, I’m working on building blocks right now for a character who is defending herself against bad guys. She’s bound to a wheelchair, but she lives on her own because it’s important to her to keep her independence. Supper is burning, and she just dropped her phone in the toilet. She’s expecting a visit from a fourteen-year-old sister who stops by once a week to check on her and bring her a few groceries.

Her family doesn’t like the setup. They wish she would move back home. They worry about her being alone. They also don’t agree with her world view when it comes to faith or politics, and would prefer she didn’t talk about those things to her little sister.

And then the bad guys come. She’s defenseless, right? No — she’s got a concealed carry permit, and she owns a .44 and an AR-15, tucked in her closet. Not your average heroine, huh?

Layers. Subplots. Themes.  They are there to make your reader care, so put your best thoughts forward into building them.



  • Use the list of questions above and attack your current WIP.
  • What else can you ask your main character to ferret out deeper layers in your story?
About Naomi Musch

Naomi Musch is the author of the inspirational novel The Casket Girl, a romantic adventure of the French and Indian War. She and husband Jeff enjoy epic adventures in the northwoods with their five young adults.

Read more about Naomi.

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