The Importance of Subplots
It would be wrong to say that every longer-format book has a subplot. Some single-title authors rely on plot twists, layers, and complications to carry the story from beginning to end. However, many of today's bestselling single-title romance authors use subplots to add texture, depth, and a bigger-book feel to their novels. To comprehend the importance of subplots, you need to be able to recognize them and their contributions to your stories.
Subplots are often misunderstood, misidentified, and definitely unappreciated. The first thing to understand about subplots is that it is a plot. It is a story within itself. It has the same elements of your main plot: characters, goals, motivations, conflict, black moments, and resolutions. Subplots are not just complications that occur in your main plot. In the example of the husband accused of killing his wife, his finding the body would not be a subplot, but rather a complication.
Be careful that your subplot never outshines your main plot. One indicator of a dominating subplot is that your secondary stories and characters are occupying more pages than your main plot.
To give you an idea of what would be a subplot, let's use the example of the mother of the child who was swapped at birth. Let's say the father of the child, who is also the hero, is presently litigating a child custody battle over a twelve-year-old boy. The boy's grandparents, the hero's clients, are also family friends who claim their grandchild was abused by his recovering alcoholic mother.
The boy, living with his grandparents, has refused to talk about the case. Slowly, he befriends the hero and opens up. The child denies the allegations of abuse. The hero is torn between loyalty to his clients and doing what he now perceives to be the right thing.
Subplots have work to do and it isn't just to add more words. The sad thing is that when their job is well done, they seldom get credit. Why? Because a subplot's job isn't so much to draw attention to itself but to make your main plot stronger and more interesting. To do that, the subplot must be linked to your main story premise. Below are several ways that subplots do their thankless jobs:
By contrasting or reflecting the conflict or theme of the main plot. In the example of the child custody battle, the pain of losing a child is present in both plots. The hero sees what the custody battle is doing to the boy and wonders if fighting for his daughter would not be detrimental to her.
By revealing the depth of the main characters. As the hero starts to empathize with the boy involved with his case, he tries to step back. His need to distance himself shows his weakness of running away from emotional involvement.
By picking up the book's pace, adding or relieving tension, and contributing interest. When you are in a quiet place with your main plot, you can keep the reader's interest by having action happening in your subplot. Or if something dramatic is happening in the main plot, your subplot can be less intense and allow the reader some emotional breathing room.
The link between the main plot and subplot is crucial and the sooner this is apparent to the reader the better. If the subplot can be removed without changing the outcome or the emotional impact of the main story, then the writer should question whether it belongs in the book.