How to Tell Subplots From Plot Bunnies

How to Tell Subplots from Plot Bunnies @JanalynVoigtAs a child, did you blow bubbles? If so, you already understand something about subplots.

What does blowing bubbles have to do with subplots, you ask? Simply this: When you blew too hard, you burst the bubbles as they formed. Blowing too lightly, while it showed you there were bubbles to be made, didn’t produce them. Only by exerting the right amount of force could you blow bubbles.

Subplots are a lot like bubbles. If you try too hard to produce them, they evaporate. However, they won’t necessarily form without your help.

What’s a Subplot?

It’s easy to become confused when thinking about subplots, so let’s start with a definition. A subplot is a secondary plot that compliments your main plot. Adding subplots to your novel will give it layers of substance and effectively underline your theme. Layering with subplots adds texture to your story’s weave. Good subplots form and grow as you write. Most show up early but can also make their appearance partway through a story. Watch for them as you introduce new characters or new situations. They can show up as a romantic interest, a character from the past, an obstacle to be overcome, or a past experience which is revealed over the course of the book, to name a few occurrences.

Most people would agree that the novel, Gone with the Wind, tells the epic romance of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. Scarlett’s relationship with Melanie Wilkes, her father’s fate, and her relationship with her sister, Sue Ellen, are all subplots. Each forms its own story within a story, and yet each contributes to the greater story by shaping our opinions about Scarlett. None of these subplots is forced. Each arises naturally from the main plot and helps develop the theme.

What’s a Bunny Trail?

It’s sometimes hard to detect bunny trails. They can sneak into your story as a romantic interest, a character from the past, or an obstacle to be overcome. Like Pegasus and his brother, Chrysaor, they can spring fully-grown out of your backstory. Subplots should never lead the reader away from your theme and should, in fact, support your primary plot. A subplot happens because of (rather than instead of) the main story. Anything else is a distraction. It’s true that all sorts of unrelated events tangle together in real life, but good fiction doesn’t suffer from such snarls and is carefully constructed to represent, rather than emulate, real life. Understanding this difference is crucial.

Adding Subplots to Your Novel
As you develop your novel, give some thought to what else could happen to reinforce your theme. Be open to insights that come as you write. Even those of us who plot our novels sometimes benefit from the introduction of an unexpected subplot. While writing WayFarer, the second novel in my Tales of Faeraven epic fantasy series, the story took a turn into the Vale of Shadows, a place I hadn’t know existed. Its inclusion in the novel was exactly right. I’m so glad I allowed the novel’s hero to take me there.
One of the best ways to add subplots to the main story line is to introduce new scenes from the point of view of the characters involved in them. This is a great way to introduce secondary characters, by the way. Remember never to change viewpoints within a scene. Provide either a scene or chapter break whenever you change the point of view. Using other characters’ viewpoints to tell subplots means you can introduce information to which your main character is not privy. Just remember as you weave your story lines to connect them at the end of the book. Don’t leave threads hanging.

Action Step

As you write your novel, keep an eye out for subplots that would deepen your main story. If you’re a plotter, brainstorm to discover these in advance, but be open to discovery as you write.

Can you name some plot bunnies that have led you down a rabbit trail?

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4 thoughts on “How to Tell Subplots From Plot Bunnies”

  1. Thanks for clarifying this, Janalyn. I think many writers try to create subplots to make the main storyline interesting, or to add some complexity to it. But, the tale ends up being more convoluted and incomprehensible instead. It’s a true talent to make a story multi-faceted without giving the reader a headache.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Jla. I am just getting used to using Disqus, so it’s taken me a while to figure out how to respond.

      You’ve identified an error that even more experienced writers make. Well stated, by the way.

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