Fiction Writing Workshop: The Seven Shoulds of Subplots

Kristin Bair O'Keeffe

By Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

Real life doesn’t happen in a single straight, neat line; neither should life in a novel. If you want to create a realistic story that captures and keeps the attention of your readers, you’ve got to weave subplots into it that add depth and texture. Subplots are stories within the main story, and they can sprout from any aspect of a main character’s private or professional life. Once in place they can (and should) deepen the text in significant ways.

Think about Homer’s The Odyssey. The main plot is: against crazy odds, man struggles to get home. But there’s a heck of a lot more going on in this story, thanks to the subplots. Remember Penelope, who is at home waiting, weaving, and fending off suitors? Telemachus, who is trying to grow up and do the right thing by his long-absent father? The gods who are conspiring against Odysseus? The gods who are trying to help him out?

Without these subplots, even The Odyssey would be a little boring and flat. Instead it reads like a modern-day soap opera (with a few Cyclops here and there).

Now apply this to your own work.

If your story is about a woman who loses her job and has to redefine herself in the professional community, you can add a subplot in which she secretly takes a night job to learn new skills and develops a crush on Hank, her new, sexy, younger boss. Suddenly you’ve got a little romance and an interesting secondary character.

As you take another look at your novel with subplots in mind, remember that they should:

  1. connect back to the main plot (and intersect with it along the way)
  2. happen for a reason and make sense in the story
  3. occur simultaneously with the main plot
  4. introduce secondary characters
  5. reveal characteristics about the main characters that readers wouldn’t otherwise get to see
  6. be fully developed (Subplots will not be as in-depth as the main plot, but you don’t want to skimp either. They should have a beginning, a middle, and a resolution all their own.)
  7. affect the resolution of the main plot

It’s important to remember that you don’t want to overload your story with subplots. Your goal is to enhance and create a three-dimensional story that feels realistic and balanced.

October 2007 Family Fun MagazineKristin Bair O’Keeffe’s debut novel, Thirsty, will be published by Swallow Press in 2009. Since moving to Shanghai, China, in 2006, Kristin has been chronicling her adventures (and misadventures) in her blog, “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse.” Her essays and articles have appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Poets & Writers Magazine, The Baltimore Review, San Diego Family Magazine, and The Gettysburg Review. She teaches fiction and nonfiction writing and is the curator of Out Loud! The Shanghai Writers Literary Salon. To learn more, visit

1 Response to “Fiction Writing Workshop: The Seven Shoulds of Subplots”

  1. 1 sandi July 26, 2009 at 1:04 am

    Dear Kristin,
    Just a quick thank you for the information about subplots and their purpose within a story. I have one (yes, one) chapter of a novel completed and am now scouring sites ,such as yours, for relevant information on continuing with a more ‘layered’ storyline.
    The importance of subplots is to prevent the story and the characters within to be perceived as limited and one dimensional.
    I have taken all your info on board and am hoping Chapter 2 will be more interesting with the inclusion of a more complex undertone.
    Thanks again,

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