In preparation for NaNoWriMo a while back, a friend of mine asked about how to come up with subplots in novels. Here are some ideas, with a little discussion of TV writing as one way to think about structure.
The way I learned it back in college, in a typical TV show, there are at least three plots in every episode, called the A, B and C plots because simple is good. The A plot is the main story, the overarching drama or mystery or conflict that takes up most of the screen time and involves your main characters.
The B plot may somehow relate to the A plot, or it may be a separate thing. It may involve your main characters, or focus on secondary characters. It can relate to an ongoing season plot instead of just the episode plot. It gets second-most screen time.
The C plot fills the cracks in time between the other two plots. It’s usually lower-stakes interpersonal drama or comic relief, good for exploring relationships between secondary characters who need more fleshing out. It can also be a series plot, something that is teased here and there and eventually becomes a B plot, then the A plot.
So a novel subplot can be a B or C plot, either related to the main plot or tangential to it. The stakes are often not as high, but they can lead to good character development or world building opportunities. And if your C plot is a series plot, it can lurk in the background and surprise the characters at inconvenient times, creeping forward slowly or leaping in sudden bursts.
In terms of how much time is devoted to each plot, that’s up to you. Usually most time is spent on the A plot, maybe half that on the B plot, then half again on the C plot, but ratios can vary depending on stuff like having multiple character POVs or intertwined plots or themes. You might have multiple A, B or C plots, or start working your way down the alphabet until it’s not so much a plot as a running gag.
Subplots are especially useful in the Great Swampy Middle of a novel, as some call it. They can function as side quests, or nested goals to complete along the path of the main quest, or as big set pieces that are like mini-novels within a novel.
But Valerie, how do I come up with these magical forays into feels and factions and so on? Here are some questions you could ask yourself to generate ideas for these B or C plots.
What’s happening with the secondary characters? What goals are they pursuing? What are their character arcs and how are you going to show them? They’re people, too! They have wants and needs that may work with or against your protagonist. Potentially a good source of conflict.
Related to the previous questions: what interpersonal stuff is happening between your primary and secondary characters? Relationships can be romantic or platonic, friendly or fraught, and can grow and change along multiple axes in different ways.
What character baggage can you force them to deal with? Problems from their past, people they left behind, situations that went unresolved… Pull a few skeletons out of their closet and rattle them. Reopen old wounds; re-break bones that didn’t set properly so they can heal better. This goes for main or secondary characters.
What factions are operating in your larger world? What are their goals and how are they planning to accomplish them? How do those plans run parallel to, intersect with or even disrupt your main plot? Who might owe whom favors and why? Cash them in! Think of allies and adversaries for your protagonist here.
What world elements feed into the plot but are themselves separate and need to be dealt with? This could be a lot of things: bureaucratic red tape, legal hoops to jump through, physical or cultural challenges, disputes to settle before the main quest can continue… You can play with analogues to real-life problems here, but beware of the ripple effects and ramifications.
What secondary themes do you want to explore? This can be tricky to nail down in the planning stages, but having general ideas can be useful. Usually theme will suggest other stuff already mentioned, like character trajectory or faction interests or possible world complications.
Are there any other subplot generation methods that work for you? Drop a comment!