This article, from Laura Backes, originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of the Children’s Book Insider newsletter and is reprinted here in its entirety with the CBI’s permission. While the CBI newsletter is primarily aimed at authors of children’s books, the advice given here is applicable to any work of fiction.
If you’re writing a book that’s longer than an easy reader or early chapter book, you’re going to need sub-plots. Sub-plots give heft to longer fiction and allow you to introduce more characters and other aspects of your protagonist’s life. Well-crafted sub-plots are related to the main action plot line, and often give the main character the tools he needs to solve his most pressing conflict.
To develop secondary characters and their relationship with the protagonist. In Charlotte’s Web, Wilbur the pig is the main character. He’s got the problem that defines the action of the overall plot: he learns he’s being fattened up for slaughter. But Charlotte, the spider, is a vital secondary character. We get to know Charlotte as she reveals herself to Wilbur. Without Wilbur, we’d never learn Charlotte existed (this is another clue as to who is the protagonist and who is the secondary character). But without Charlotte’s involvement in Wilbur’s life, we’d have a very different book. This is an example of a subplot that provides essential support for the main story arc.
When creating secondary characters, especially those as complex as Charlotte, follow the same steps as you used to develop your protagonist. These supporting characters must be fully formed, with their own lives, to add substance to the protagonist’s story.
To add texture and depth to the main action plot. Sub-plots simply make a story more interesting. Where wouldCharlotte’s Web be without Templeton the rat, and his evolution from self-centered, gluttonous scavenger to heroic, gluttonous ally? Some sub-plots are small diversions (think of Fern’s spending less time in the barnyard as she gets older), others crucial to the progagonist resolving his problem. Sub-plots offer the author another opportunity to throw obstacles in the main character’s path (by distracting the protagonist, making his life more difficult, or introducing characters with their own competing agendas), or give the protagonist tools to make his life easier.
To press the “pause” button. Sometimes, a story may be so tension-filled or stressful that the reader simply needs a break. Sub-plots keep the reader involved in the characters’ lives but offer a rest from the action. Conversely, if the main story is quiet and thoughtful, a more action-filled sub-plot helps vary the pacing. Be sure your sub-plots always develop elements of character or story that give the reader new information that relates to the primary story arc. Plot tangents that dead end, rather than loop around and eventually come back to the central story, are pointless.
To illustrate your theme. Sub-plots are often emotionally-based, exploring relationships or internal aspects of your protagonist. Because of this, a story’s theme is often revealed in the sub-plots. If the main plot of Charlotte’s Web is whether or not Wilbur will die, then the friendship between Charlotte and Wilbur is a primary theme. This friendship ultimately saves Wilbur’s life. Because E.B. White illustrated the power of friendship through a complex sub-plot, he showed us the theme. He never had to tell us what his message might be.
Another way to show theme is through the growth and change of your protagonist. Sub-plots are a vehicle for this as well. Wilbur grew from an timid, hysterical, lonely piglet who lacked self-confidence to a radient, resourceful, loyal pig. Elements from every sub-plot in the book contributed to his transformation.
Sub-plots don’t necessarily end with a firm resolution as your action storyline will. Sub-plots give your character skills and experiences that he’ll take with him beyond the last page of the book, so they can be more open-ended. For upper middle grade and young adult audiences, some sub-plots might end with the death of a loved one, or a friendship ending. But reserve a few hopeful threads for the final pages that show the protagonist is moving in the right direction. The most satisfying stories give a balance, as in real life.
If you’re an author of children’s books, or aspire to be, take a look at the Children’s Book Insider Clubhouse site. There, you can register to receive the monthly CBI newsletter, which is filled with more useful articles like this one, as well as notices of publishers and agents seeking children’s book manuscripts.