Sub-plot, or The Other Thing

The other night, my husband and I watched an episode of Scorpion, which I’d only see bits and pieces of before and ended up thoroughly enjoying.  The show is about a band of misfit computer experts led by Katherine McPhee, who is their interface and explainer of the real world.  In this episode, a helicopter carrying a doctor had crashed into a parking garage in high winds.  The helicopter was stable, as were its passengers, but the doctor had to be extracted immediately because she was the only doctor who could perform a certain kind of surgery and she had a dying patient awaiting her. (Hence why she was being flown in.) So the gang had to figure out how to perform a very risk rescue.

It was all very exciting, but what struck me was how the writers made great use of sub-plots. One involved the meteorological expert’s budding ardor for a chemist who works nearby and also the trials of a couple who were dealing with infertility. (I know, I know, sounds like a lot to pack into one episode, but it worked.) The sub-plots gave what otherwise could have been a routine action show a good dose of human pathos, especially because of the way the writers worked them in around the ongoing drama.

And that made me ponder sub-plots. When I first started writing fiction back when we all lived in caves, I was intimidated by sub-plots.  They sounded complicated and complex to try to fit in.  I mean, it is hard enough to figure out one plot from start to finish, right? And then you’re supposed to add in others? And make them relate to the main plot?

But then I realized that I was over-thinking the whole sub-plot thing.  They can be as simple as a few brief mentions of a minor character’s arc or some silly joke that carries through the plot.

You can think of them as, simply, another thing.  A thing that will take the pressure off your main character and your main story, thus giving it, your readers, and you, some time to breathe.  Often a story feels a little bare until you add in this other thing.

Ways to add in more things

Add another aspect to your main character.

Think, for example, of your own life.  You wear many hats, right? You’re a writer, but you’re also perhaps a parent or an aunt or an uncle, a friend, and likely you work at some kind of job. Then there are your hobbies and activities–maybe you run every day after work, or spend the evening in front of the TV knitting. Or perhaps you bake amazing sweets.  Or raise turtles. Or like to flip houses.

But if you were writing yourself as a character and focused solely on one of those things, the story would soon get a little stale. What if we only saw your character watching TV? Or running? Or tending the turtles?  That would not be a developed picture of you at all.  And that’s one way to add a sub-plot: add another element to the character.  I remember one from a novel that I read long ago in which the main character was constipated the entire novel. At one point, he finally was able to go. I know, I know. But it could be thought of as another thing.

Add a love interest.

Boo-yah.  Done and done.  If you’re writing a mystery or thriller or literary fiction, a love interest adds a human element readers love.

Create a habit for your character.

This can be either one she is trying to acquire or one she is trying to break. As a running line throughout the story, it can add depth and maybe even some humor.

Use a minor character for a sub-plot.

In my novel, Emma Jean’s Bad Behavior, I gave her assistant an arc that became a sub-plot. She started out completely against romance and ended up madly in love.

Give your character something to master.

Maybe your character takes up jewelry-making to find a way to relax from the stress of her job.   Or decides to plant a garden.  Showing a character mastering something new is satisfying for the reader.

Give your character a hobby.

I love to knit. While most of the time I do this at home, I also attend knit nights at local knitting stores and the monthly meeting of my knitting guild.  Something like this gives your character more dimension and also gives you more fodder for the plot.

How to use sub-plots

  • Only add in one or two! Too many will overload your story.
  • Remember that sub-plots will be introduced and completed before the start and finish of your story.  Save the beginning and end for the main plot
  • Sub-plots are very handy for pacing. You can have one sub-plot hanging out there, then introduce another one and meanwhile be moving along the main elements of the plot.  Open plot lines are a great way to keep the reader interested.
  • Keep your sub-plots organic to the story. Does it feel forced? Don’t use it. For instance, it is probably not going to feel natural for a business executive living in Manhattan to start raising chickens.
  • Similar to above, be sure to find a way to connect or relate your sub-plot to the story.

How do you use sub-plots in your stories? Do any of these ideas resonate? Leave a comment–or come over to the Facebook page to share.


Story Structure

Everystockphoto_188458_mYou're writing a story, be it novel, short story, or memoir, and it needs structure.

"But I want to be creative," you cry.  "And following story structure will make my work formulaic."

Baloney, I say.

Because a piece of creative writing without structure is like bread without yeast.  Or a pen without ink. Or coffee without caffeine in it.

Structure is what makes the writing hold up.  I think of it like this:  Picture a clothesline with the string between the two poles all loose and wavy.  No way you can hang clothes on it. Now think of that same string as pulled taut, and it accepts your shirts and shorts and underwear just fine.

Structure allows your scenes and characters and plot points a place to hang on.  Otherwise, they are just dangling in the wind. I've collected a few basic structures for you to peruse as a starting point below.  Bear in mind that this truly is the briefest of starting points–books galore (especially in the screenwriting world) have been written about structure, and if you consult the Google, you'll find page upon page of information.   

I begin with the structure that I just recently stumbled upon, and am currently in love with:

Dan Harmon's Story Structure

Picture this as a circle with point #1 at the top and then each point follows clockwise.

1. A character is in a zone of comfort

2. But they want something.

3. So they enter into an unfamiliar situation

4. And adapt to it.

5. They get what they wanted!

6. But pay a heavy price.

7. They return to their familiar situation

8. Changed forever.

Brilliant, eh?  I've been so taken with this structure because my novel follows it exactly. (Editorial note: when I refer to my "novel" I mean my WIP, and also I want to make it clear I didn't set out to follow this structure, but was blown away when I discovered how well it suits my current project.)  Dan Harmon is the creator of the TV show, Community, and apparently if you watch episodes of it, you can see this structure in action.


The plot structure of Aristotle, which was certainly one of the first, if not the first, is like a skewed triangle. There's a long upward slant to the right and then a short slant down. The plot starts with conflict, the uppermost part skews up to the crisis, and then the short side ends in the resolution. This is a time-tested and time-honored way to design a plot.


Screenplays are 120 pages long to coincide with 120 minutes of on-screen time. (Each page is one minute.) Structure is divided into three parts:

Act One –to page 30

Act Two — pages 30-90

Act Three — pages 90-120

Each act is divided by a plot point, some action that makes the action skew in a new and unexpected way.  Some structures designate a mid point at page 60.

This is a surprisingly robust structure for projects other than screenplays, and with other fictional forms you don't need to hew to the page count.

Hero's Journey

This is the mono-myth made famous by Joseph Campbell, who studied myths from all cultures and realized they all followed a common storyline.  We see the hero in his ordinary world and then comes the call to adventure.  There are struggles, and complications ending in a supreme ordeal and final crisis.  Ultimately, the hero returns to the ordinary world with new knowledge to share.

The best source for more information on this structure is Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey. 

Two Nows

This is a structure I named. It's when you have two concurrent plot lines of different times running concurrently. It's when backstory is very important to the contemporary story. Each story line has its own structure. You can read more about it in an article I wrote here.

These are some structures that should give you a good starting point.  I highly recommend that you read and research them and find one that works for your project. Finding a structure to follow can enhance your writing–you may realize that your book doesn't set up an ordinary world enough before you plunge into adventure, or it may occur to you that you could pump up the part where you character finally gets what she wants.  Tweaking the story in little ways to better conform to story structure can make a big difference.

What a about you?  Do you have a story structure you really like?  Please share!

photo by gracey.