There are different functions subplots play, and different stories will require different types and numbers of subplots. I agree with other writers and editors who see subplots as serving particular roles: to increase complexity, reveal characterisation, provide backstory, or enhance tension. Sometimes a subplot will serve several of those roles at once, other times just one. And all work to support the main plotline.
Stories that focus on the emotional development of a character may have a high number of subplots as different strands of the protagonist’s journey are tracked (career, friendships, family, romantic interest), eventually resolving alongside the main plotline. Examples include Lily King’s Writers and Lovers (Picador 2020) and Genevieve Novak’s No Hard Feelings (Harper Collins 2022). Other stories, particularly those with a major twist, may have fewer subplots, increasing the impact of the twist as the reader has been so focussed on the main plotline heading in a certain direction, such as Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (Simon and Schuster 2017).
But as soon as I start thinking I might be able to draw some conclusion about subplots in different genres, I think of an example that blows the theory. There is no one size fits all. The function and roles of subplots are important principles to understand, and I would encourage you to read up on these principles if you don’t feel familiar with them (there are lots of blogs online). But as with other aspects of writing, there is no golden rule. Especially about the number of subplots that ‘should’ appear, or the depth and complexity of subplots per se. That’s what makes the creative endeavour of writing fiction on the one hand so alluring, but on the other so terrifying.
How do you know that you’ve got it right?
It’s a process of discovery over many drafts. In your first draft you are finding the story and discovering who the characters are. Depending on the way you write, you may have a strong sense of the main plotline and clear subplot ideas, or you may let the plotlines unfold as you make your way through the draft and respond to what the characters do and say. There is no right or wrong way to do it. Whether you are a planner or not, finessing your subplots is likely to come in later drafts.
If you have too many subplots, the work may feel overly complicated. If you don’t have enough, the story can feel thin. You may have a subplot in your first draft that is quite changed by your fifth draft, or has disappeared altogether as you realise that however much you loved it, it doesn’t serve the story. Other subplots might emerge in the redrafting process as you come to see what is required to support character development, or to increase dramatic tension, or to create stronger plausibility.
You are likely to only know if you’ve got it right when you have a clear and solid understanding of what your overall story is about – the idea you are exploring through the events in the story, the underlying theme that holds it all together. And you need a deep knowledge of who your characters are – their backstories, personalities, fears and desires. You also need to know where your main plot begins and ends, and what drives it, what creates the narrative momentum that keeps the reader wanting to turn the pages. It takes multiple drafts.
One writer friend (with three published novels under her belt) was telling me recently how in draft #4 of her current work-in-progress she had stripped away a subplot when she realised it was a distraction that didn’t relate strongly enough to her central theme, but ended up finding a new one that featured one of the minor characters from that ditched subplot which worked much better to enhance the momentum of the main plotline. This required significant changes, but she was confident the new draft was greatly improved.
I often use the term story threads rather that subplots, as I think of the overall narrative as a weaving of sorts. Managing your story threads – your subplots – takes skill, thought and commitment to the work. Sometimes you might feel like everything is a tangled mess, other times you might revel in the lushness of a woven strand. You may well spend hours undoing and redoing whole sections, tucking ungainly knots neatly away and dealing with loose threads as you work out how to attain the end result you are aiming for. It can take time to find clarity on the picture you are wanting to create, the right colour palette, the best weight of threads, and the balance and interplay between the materials that generate the overall effect. Keep going until you find what works. Honour the process.
And keep your scissors handy!