Don’t Forget the Subplots

Don't Forget the SubplotsPhoto license

I tried to make a list of all the books I’d read once. It was over 2000 titles long when I realized there was a problem. There were some authors where I’d read dozens of their books and didn’t recognize a single summary when I looked them up. For other authors, I remembered every single book. What’s the difference between the two? That’s hard to say given I don’t remember one type, but I’ll make a guess.

There are some authors whose books you can read very fast because the story is simple. We follow one character or group pursuing a single goal. All the story complications have to do with that single goal. You can zip through the story quickly and forget it just as quick. Nothing wrong with that. Some authors build successful careers on that writing style. I’m not even suggesting you shouldn’t use that style.

There are other authors whose books you can’t read fast. The people in their stories have their own motivations and don’t cooperate with the central story. In other words, the novels have subplots. These are the 2000 plus books I remembered well. Sub-plots make a story unique and more realistic.

Nobody has a favorite book that has no sub-plots unless it’s a favorite book from childhood. Adult novels that are simple quick reads are too much like other books in their genre. They are forgettable.

As an example, I’d like to talk about the plots of a few favorite books. Recent research has found that knowing the plot of a story doesn’t ruin a story. Even knowing the ending won’t stop you from enjoying a book. Still, I will hold back the endings.


The first is Natsuo Kirino’s “Out”. In the main plot thread, a woman kills her husband and some friends help cover it up. The plot thickens as other people find out what happened. The sub-plots are the lives of each of these women and of others who get involved. Each life is its own story and could be a novella on its own. The genius of this novel is that all of these sub-plots work together to make the main plot much more interesting. It’s a book I can never read in a hurry, but it’s so good I’ve read it four times and will read it again. Some of Kirino’s other books follow a simpler plot. She writes a variety of story types. “Out” may be her greatest novel and it’s because of the sub-plots.

Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Another favorite novel is Haruki Murakami’s “Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World”. This time, instead of sub-plots there are two plots that alternate with each chapter. Wonderland is a violent sci-fi world based on hard boiled fiction. End of the World is an odd medieval style place that might be the main character’s afterlife. Each of the two plots is not especially unique on its own, although both have Murakami’s one-of-a-kind writing style. It’s the movement between two different genres that are both also literature that makes this story unique. Is the main character dead at the End of the World? How will his problems end in Wonderland? I don’t need to tell you that the story ends by bringing the two plots together.

This novel made me return to the bookstore and buy every other novel by Murakami. Most of his books would be classed as literature, not sci-fi or crime. Even though I find literature boring, Murakami uses sub-plots throughout his books and I buy everything he publishes.

The Hobbit

Anyone who’s enjoyed the Lord of the Rings movies enough to read the books knows it’s the sub-plots that made that trilogy a success. The ring sub-plot in The Hobbit was the basis for The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit has many sub-plots along the way and that’s why they’re able to make several movies from such a short book.

One way to bring sub-plots into your novel is by writing mini-stories about each of the characters. I’ve written about mini-stories here. If you find yourself building on a mini-story, you’ve added a sub-plot.

Sub-plots in a novel are like spices and side dishes with a meal. They make the experience much tastier. Please. Don’t forget the sub-plots when you write your stories.

Article by Ivan Izo.


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