Creating a main plotline for your story is one thing, but what about sub-plots? Some stories may have only a couple, but others can have several or perhaps many. It’s no secret that the more sub-plots you have the more complex the story becomes, and therefore it becomes a greater burden on the writer. Depending on the genre in which genre you’re write writing, you may find you need more or less sub-plots to make a story work, but be prepared for some really mind-boggling problems if you’re like me and find yourself writing handfuls of them.
Each character or group of characters has its own set of agendas, ambitions, morals (or lack of), and motivations. This means that each one in itself creates a sub-plot. There can be varying degrees of sub-plots too; some are major and connect significantly with the main story, and others may be smaller off-shoots relative to a character’s back-story, their personal interests, or maybe something else entirely. If you are able to tie them into the main plot, so much the better. However, it’s worth noting that deviating from the main story too much might start costing reader interest if drawn out too much in length.
I like to think of a story encompassing numerous sub-plots as a web, much akin to those spun by your average garden spider. If you take a close look at one and think about it in a literary context you will see what I mean. The main threads attach to external objects such as trees, walls, fences, gateposts, and so on. All the web’s threads, however many there are, will intersect in the centre. The spider may then work in a number of different ways to link those threads together. Often they’ll spin the centre of the web to some degree first and then work outwards, or inwards, or even construct sections at a time. Every single original strand crosses through the centre, and there are many links between those strands that hold it together. If one part of it is missing, the web’s structure doesn’t work quite so well and can often suffer structural weakness as a result.
Writing a story is no different. Regardless of whether you like or dislike spiders, in the metaphorical sense, you are one. A spider spins or weaves a web, and you’re doing the same thing when you write a story. You’re spinning or weaving with threads of words rather than threads of silk. One thread links to another, and they all spiral and cross over one another as they work towards the centre. Your web might basic, or it might be enormously complex with too many original and linking threads to count. For all intents and purposes, you want to make every thread count toward the overall story.
Structural gaps in a spider’s web are like plot-holes in a story. You may be able to get away with a few minor plot-holes, but if they’re numerous or considerably large, the structure of your story isn’t sound. Even small plot-holes in your story web should be filled if possible, but larger ones are areas where you will want to focus your attention.
If you consider each original thread to be one of your characters, and the very middle of the web as your central plot, then the whole picture starts to become clearer. The protagonist(s) and each major character – whether they be ally, neutral or antagonist/villain – are directly linked to the central plot, and everything that happens in between links them all together in one way or another. Even if one of your major characters meets their demise, they will still have played their role in keeping the structure of the story together.
One last piece of advice, is avoid adding more threads than you can manage for any one story. I found myself writing too many into my first book and have since removed those sections of the story – but I haven’t ‘binned’ them. If you find yourself in that position, save those pieces elsewhere with a view to reintroducing them at a later point. If it’s too much for you to handle in writing it, it’s more than likely going to be too much for the reader to understand and absorb. Only keep in what serves the story; what you take out can always be reintroduced at a later point where it magically fits into place.