A huge chunk of the writing process for a crime novel is spent mulling over creating the perfect crime. Which clues will you use to foreshadow the answer to your readers? What carefully considered red herrings will you plant to distract the reader?
But what separates the average stories from the memorable ones is the ability to masterfully weave interesting subplots in amongst your main storyline.
Will you tell the tale of love between co-workers? Does your protagonist overcome a crippling addiction to finally catch their nemesis? Consider how you might use one of the following six subplot themes to spice up your story.
What is a subplot?
Subplots are secondary stories to your main plot that add depth and interest for your reader. While your main story begins and ends your novel, the subplot will start and finish within the main plot. It often follows the ups and downs that a main story would and should complement it in some way. It will also have a protagonist and antagonist, just like your main story.
If you’re wondering whether you are on the right lines, consider whether you can answer YES to one of the following questions:
- Does your subplot advance the main story?
- Does your subplot develop your main character in some way?
If you can’t answer ‘yes’ to either of the above, for what purpose are you including your chosen subplot? If it is just for padding out your word count or because you feel you ‘should’ include one, you might need to go back to the drawing board.
Pick one or two subplots if you’re aiming for an average sized novel (around 50,000-80,000 words), but you can go big if you’re writing an epic; just look at Game of Thrones for subplots galore!
Subplots can add lots of good things to your story: tension, depth of character, depth of setting and comic relief from a dark storyline.
1. The LOVE subplot
The most common subplot in a story, and quite easy to add in to bulk out your work if you’re struggling for ideas.
This doesn’t always have to be romantic love but could be any strong emotional attachment: familial love, friendship or love for a pet all count. The love subplot could affect your protagonist by supporting them through their endeavours, or alternatively threatening their success in some way. The latter could help add tension to your story; in what ways might love or a relationship threaten your detective’s ability to solve the case? Are there conflicting interests?
2. The CHARACTER BACKGROUND subplot
Again, very common and often intertwined with the main story, this subplot reveals previous events about a character in order to make an illogical behaviour or action make sense. For example, we may read a couple of chapters from the point of view of someone close to the killer, in an effort to help us empathise with him or at least go some way to understanding their decision to kill.
3. The POLITICAL subplot
A subplot idea with tons of room for creativity, here we explore the political or social environment of the location and time you’re writing in. You could draw upon something you want to say about the state of society e.g. global warming, immigration, war etc. Or, it could be a social phenomenon such as how parents raise their children or punish them, or how we communicate in an increasingly digital world.
Your subplot should feed the main story. Does it create tension in the main plot? Does it help us better understand what is happening?
4. The PERSONAL GROWTH subplot
The main character overcomes some sort of setback or fear, in order to have grown as a person by the close of the book. The character does not always get what they want by the end, but perhaps they get what they need. What we’re thinking of here is a wake-up call of some kind, some perspective on a situation perhaps. More often than not the growth will aid in solving the investigation in some way, if writing a crime story.
5. The TRAITS subplot
Part of your story may be dedicated to unveiling another side to your main character, in order to help the audience understand him or her better. We might do this by showing a dark side to the character, perhaps they are selfish, arrogant or a bully. We might unveil an addiction to gambling, alcohol or sex. Perhaps this newly revealed aspect to your character’s personality threatens the success of the investigation in some way.
On the flip side, the traits subplot could be used to show us a strength or likeable trait in a character. This might serve to help us, the reader, relate to characters better and become more invested in the story.
6. The FEAR OR VULNERABILITY subplot
Exploring the topic of fear helps the reader to identify with our character, because it reminds us that we are all human, all vulnerable in one way or another. What is your hero or villain afraid of? And how is their journey affected by that fear? How does it affect their relationships with other characters?
Over to you
Which subplots have you used in your writing? Are some harder than others? Let me know in the comments!