Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Constructing a Subplot

Some people consider a subplot as simply a secondary story that parallels the main story. While that is true, a well-constructed subplot not only parallels the main plot, but it also supports and enhances it. At its best, the subplot forces twists and turns in the main plot that neither the characters nor the reader anticipates.

In some genres, the subplot concept is obvious. Labeling a novel a romantic suspense tells the reader the primary story will involve suspense and the subplot will be a romance. Easy peasy.

I write thrillers that explore financial crimes, abuse of power, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in how people can (and do) take advantage of others in financial transactions. I want to understand how criminals put their thumbs on scales, water their product, illegally change odds in their favor. I’ll never run out of shady practices to explore.

Abuse of power takes many forms: economic, physical, psychological. Power between two people is rarely equal, and any inequality provides the opportunity for abuse. How those in power choose to use it, and how those exploited by the powerful respond, provide alternative story lines.

The term “family relationships” conjures both function and disfunction.

The novels’ main plots directly explore one or two of my three interests. I can choose the remaining area to drive my subplot. For example, in the seventh Seamus McCree novel, Granite Oath, the main plot follows events driven by Seamus’s promise to search for a child’s missing mother. The reader suspects some combination of abuse of power and financial crimes triggered the disappearance. Using family relationships to develop a subplot made sense.

One subplot in Granite Oath involves Seamus’s granddaughter, Megan, and the missing mother’s daughter, Valeria, training a family of bald eagles to “catch” fish. This little tale is an amusing interlude readers will enjoy. It’s cute, and it serves to break up the major action and release tension before adding more. Worthwhile results, but introducing the girls and their eagles provided me the opportunity to dig deeper.

I rewrote the novel to use the eagles (and/or the girls' interactions with them) in multiple ways to:

  •     cause a key item of evidence to disappear (delaying the time until Seamus discovers it),
  •     assist Seamus out of one bind and mire him in a second one,
  •     provide an opportunity to describe the relationship of two settings,
  •     physically remove a threat to Seamus,
  •     create a larger obstacle for Seamus to overcome, provide the reader insight into several human relationships, and
  •     act as a symbolic gift of thanks.

(I know the specifics are vague, but I do not want to include spoilers.)

With the rewrite, the “training the eagles” subplot integrates with the main story line, affecting it at least seven different ways. That’s exactly what I want my subplots to do.

Readers, what are your favorite subplots?

* * * * *

James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, abuse of power, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at

* Originally posted on the Writers Who Kill Blog

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