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Stop With the Subplots Overload


Subplots are beautiful – or romantic, or mysterious, or thrilling, or fantastic – things when done right. We’ve already established that much this week between our writing Definition and Writing Challenge.

What we didn’t establish is that, when done wrong, subplots are an off-putting distraction. Like a fly that keeps buzzing around your head while you’re trying to enjoy a delicious meal.

You want to be able to savor the texture on your tongue and the exact ingredients on your taste buds.

But you can’t. Not fully. Because that darn fly won’t stop distracting you for more than a minute at a time.

As a writer, your job is to shoe those proverbial flies away. Squash them with a swatter. Get one of those bug zappers if you must.

(Unless those only work on mosquitoes? I’m not sure.)

The point is to do whatever it takes to keep bad subplots out of your story. Otherwise, they could spoil everything.

What is a bad subplot?

It might be a secondary story line that’s way too far-fetched. Or it inappropriately changes the tone of the narrative. Or it requires way too much work to bring the narrative back on track, like a bunny trail gone psycho.

Those are all possibilities.

But oftentimes, a bad subplot simply comes down to one subplot too many.

The more subplots you allow, the more confusing your story can get.
A well-constructed, well-executed subplot is a wonderful thing that adds flavor and depth to a story. In the same way no diner wants to eat bland food and puddles provide limited fun to jump in, novel readers want to savor and explore the narratives they pick up.
Yet recipes can get over-spiced, and bodies of water can grow deep enough to drown in. Don’t let those metaphors follow you into the writing world.

So get your chef’s hat on straight already. This recipe deserves your attention.

A couple of years ago, I finished up reading Book #1 of a series that started out phenomenally. So much so that I went right to Barnes & Noble for Book #2.

But Book #2 was a letdown, all because the author put too many subplots into play.

By themselves, those dozen or so “stories within the story” weren’t so bad. Most of them were interesting with a lot of potential. There just wasn’t enough room to let that potential roam.


Not with:

  • The romantic subplot

  • The other romantic subplot

  • The friendship subplot complicated by the romance

  • The mystery of what in the world the big tower was for

  • The death of the best friend that needed to be avenged – which, incidentally, didn’t make any sense (the death, not the avenging)

  • The new superpowers subplot

  • The secret passage along with the strange creature living down there...

They were a lot to follow, constantly navigating me away from the main plot pathway. As a reader, I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to be investing my imagination and emotions, particularly when the author would introduce a new subplot, then ignore it for chapters on end.

Don’t ask me what she was doing. For that matter, don’t ask her either. I’m not sure if she knew.

When Book #3 ended up being even worse in that department, I dropped the series for good. What had started out so captivating was no longer worth my time.

At least it was a learning experience in what we writers should never do. We need to stick to subplots that are more manageable.

That way, we’ll limit our chances of including a bad subplot… and increase our chances of keeping readers content.

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