As I’ve been working through revision on my manuscript, I’ve been thinking a lot about sub-plots. Do I have enough? Too many? Do they work? Do they serve the story?
In working through the sub-plots in my own manuscript, and comparing them to sub-plots in some of my favourite books, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three main types of sub-plots:
If I’ve missed any, feel free to tell me in the comments. These three, however, serve as a great starting point to determine whether a particular sub-plot serves the story, or whether it’s nothing but filler.
The purpose of a character sub-plot is to reveal additional information about a major character. Perhaps you’d like to show a different side of a character, or reveal information about their character that is pertinent to the actions they take during the course of the main plot. These sub-plots are the ones that turn the character from what I affectionately call a “character sheet with a gun” (often used amongst my circle of RPG-playing friends to describe a poorly created character) into a well-developed, multi-faceted person.
Let’s say, for example, you have a protagonist who is a hired assassin. He’s hired by an unidentified man to kill someone, but the job goes horribly wrong when it turns out the target is actually a vampire (because, why not?) and he shrugs off the bullet and swears vengeance on the hitman. The protagonist spends the rest of the story alternately fleeing from an angry vampire and trying to find out who hired him and why. In the end, he has to choose between cutting off the vampire’s head (thus completing his job) or letting the vampire live, and…. I don’t know, handing over the person responsible who hired him, or taking a contract on his previous employer, or simply checking himself into a psychiatric hospital in the hopes that the monsters won’t get him.
The point is that, during the course of that plot, we only see one side of the character — and in this case, he really is a “character-sheet with a gun”. Now, that’s all well and good if you’re writing a summer blockbuster where explosions and witty quips are (seemingly) more important than character development, but what if you want to show another side of the action hero?
Perhaps there’s a sub-plot where he promises his niece he’ll take her to her dance recital, but then he can’t make it because a vicious vampire followed him home. The sub-plot where he desperately tries to make it up to his niece, showing up backstage to her final performance, is completely unrelated to the main plotline, but it reveals a lot about who the protagonist is, deep down. And that’s going to make your story stronger.