Building a subplot without it taking over the main plot?

Basically, the graph of your story subplots will look like this:

So this is basic story arc with eight Plot Points, with subplots threaded throughout. Note, all sub plot stories are normally complete by the time the main story hits it’s climax.

Each subplot will have its own Story Arc or character arc, with Plot Points, Story Beats and Reveals (see below). These may or may not correspond to points in the main story, but I think a novel is always more complete if main plot and sub plots do cross at various points.

Depending on the size and importance of your sub plot, you will include just enough Plot Points, Story Beats, and Reveals to tell, or perhaps only hint at, the story of the sub plot. However, and this is very important, as the author you need to know (and have plotted out) the full story of each sub plot just as meticulously as you have done with the main story. Sub plots need to be subtle, so you may only sketch out the sub plot story in the main novel, but you still need to know the full story of the sub plot or else it will not work.

Never have a sub plot with more than a third of the Plot Points, Story Beats, and Reveals as the main story. Otherwise it will compete for attention with, and detract from. the main story

Think of your novel as a series of related stories, all escalating in difficulty and intensity until the goal is reached. Sub plots are additional, related, short stories that feed into or mirror the main story and usually involve other characters who are in some way linked to the main protagonist or antagonist. Sub plots weave in and out of the main story, sometimes highlighting the main plot, sometimes commenting on it, and sometimes acting as a counterpoint.

Mixing It Up

So when you construct your story, the sub plot scenes will be scattered around the scenes of the main story/plot. Some of these sub plot scenes will be next to each other, some sub plot scenes will have a number of main story scenes between them, and scenes from several sub plots will overlap. If you are clever, then some of the drama/action/side action in main story scenes will also be sub plot scenes.

It helps to keep track of your sub plot with a spread sheet like this:

So you know which scenes relate to which story/plot at which point in the story.


If you are subtle enough with your sub plots – unless they are large sub plot like a love story – your readers will hardly notice them. Instead they will just know that your novel has ‘depth’.

Story Beats

Sitting on top of the story arc, are what are often called Story Beats. These are additional steps in your story that will define the genre of your story, whether it is a love story, an adventure/quest story, a mystery, detective story, sci-fi, or saga. Many of these story beats are defined by the genre in which you are writing, and are what your readership expect to see. There is no requirement to include these genre defining Story Beats, but your story will work better within its chosen genre if you do.

The easiest to illustrate is the love story, which must include these story beats: boy meets girl, girl driven away from boy, girl and boy are reconciled, boy driven away from girl, both reconciled, crisis, changed character for one or maybe probably both, final reconciliation or moving on. How many times you repeat these Story Beats for your story is up to you, but without them your story won’t work as a love story.

Some Story Beats will relate to your setting: historic era, Western, Steampunk, Sci-fi, etc. I write Steampunk stories, but many different types of story structure can fit into this genre, because, although treated as a genre for marketing purposes is not a true genre. By this I mean it is not a type of story with its own unique story arc, this is equally true for the Western/Wild West type story. So, anything you particularly want to include or show off about your setting, historical period, or story world, will be included on your Story Arc as a Story Beat.

In addition, some Story Beats may also be Tropes. These are basically clichés, specific to your genre or story type, or possibly your character(s) that you want to be present in you story without being overtly obvious. Don’t be afraid of Tropes just because they are clichés – basically they are a type of ‘short hand’ or ‘flag’ that lets the reader know certain things about your story, genre, setting or character. Learn to tell the difference between using clichés and becoming clichéd: the first is possible story telling tool, the latter is to be avoided at all cost, unless done deliberately for comic value.

You will find that some of your Story Beats will also be basic Plot Points on your Story Arc, that is fine, but there will be others which are unique to your story and need to be placed on your Story Arc so you know where they occur in relation to the rest of the story.

Story Reveals

In addition to your basic Plot Points and the Story Beats for your genre, there will also be a number Reveals, in your story, at least two or three, but maybe many more depending on the type of story. Reveals are points in the story where the main character(s) learn something new that causes the plot to twist and turn. Depending on the way you construct your story and the point of view you are using, there may also be an Audience Reveal: this is where the author gives the readers privileged information that the main characters are yet to discover, this can add an element of tension to the story.

Ideally, every Plot Point should have a Reveal attached that helps drive the story in a new direction. To maximise the twists and turns of your story, each Story Beat would also have it’s own Reveal – this might be relevant for a detective novel or ‘who-done-it’ type novel.

Hope this helps,


One thought on “Building a subplot without it taking over the main plot?”

  1. Thank you! This is an excellent article and the best I have read about subplots, and even taught me how to more effectively use the main story arc. I’ve been working on a book for over a year and while I’m not the best of writers I have what I think is a great story, interesting characters, and sub plots. But I’ve never been able to organize them into a novel, it always seems more like short stories that stand alone. Now, thanks to this, I think I can take the scenes and chapters and turn them into something that flows better.

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