Thursday, March 30, 2017

Managing the Subplot

My current work-in-progress is really a recovery project. I decided to take a break from a new series I’ve been working on and rework an Anita Ray manuscript I set aside after Five Star/Gale, Cengage decided to drop its mystery line. The ms was ninety percent finished, and I’ve felt reluctant to abandon it completely. As I read through the story, which I hadn’t looked at for well over a year, I recalled the question I’d struggled with earlier. The problem was a subplot that introduced a character who wanted more—more space, more dialogue, more control. defines subplot as “a secondary or subordinate plot, as in a play, novel, or other literary work; underplot.” The site also notes that the term is only about one hundred years old. As part of a general understanding, the subplot should also throw into relief, illuminate in some way, the main plot of the story or novel. This took me to the heart of my problem.

In this story, In Sita’s Shadow, a middle-aged widow is about to make a decision that is momentous for an Indian woman in her circumstances, edging into the middle class, with her daughter married and well launched on her own career and in married life. I don’t want it to be an easy decision, but I don’t want it to take over the main plot either, which is the identification of the murderer and the motive.

The theme of this Anita Ray mystery is the choices we make when life closes in on us. If the subplot for each aspect of the story is too well developed, it may eclipse the main plot, and take the novel in a new direction. That’s not necessarily bad, but it means I’m writing a different story. If the subplot takes over the story, as characters sometimes do, the book will feel unbalanced. The structure may seem like its collapsing under the weight of the subplot.

I liked the subplot I came up with for Deepa Nayar, the character in question, but the minute I began to rework it, I knew this could be trouble. The characters that came onto the page pushed themselves into the action, flashed across scenes that had been intended to do something very different. It didn’t take me long to acknowledge that this wasn’t a subplot. This thread was bigger than a subplot; it was the theme of a novel and deserved its own book.
Any story requires many threads, different characters and their perspectives, motives, behaviors. But not every thread belongs in every story, and that was my conclusion. Deepa Nayar’s subplot will get its own novel. She’ll finish out her life story in this book, but the question that her decision raises will be explored in the next one. My vision for In Sita’s Shadow is a single story whose subplots in the lives of the suspects contribute to a single fabric.

There’s nothing wrong with letting a subplot take over a story, knowing that it will become the main story line. But that’s not what I wanted in this book. But it is a discovery that will help me shape the next one.

To find the Anita Ray stories, go to these sites.


  1. Hi Susan,

    Sometimes a subplot does need to be developed further in the form of another book. It's a tough call.

  2. I thought I'd have other problems with this subplot, but now I have another book to write. Thanks for commenting, Jacquie.

  3. And now, you have an interesting plot already developed for your next book!

  4. Indeed, I do, Marian. Time to get writing.

  5. Brilliant! Thanks for the post.

  6. I've never seen this problem addressed before and so am grateful for your doing so. I'm beginning to wonder if a subplot is trying to take over my current WIP! Thanks for the heads up.

  7. I've faced other problems with subplots, but this time the character leading the subplot really threatened to get out of hand. Glad the blog was useful. Thanks for commenting, Jan.

  8. Great advice!
    good luck and God's blessings