Workshop: How to Thread a Story


Vision 69



How to Thread a Story


Lazette Gifford

Joyously Prolific Blog

Copyright © 2012, Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved





The creation of a subplot to work with a main storyline is a delicate operation. The subplot must add to the tale, not distract from it. The subplot must create connections to the major storyline and a really good subplot can sometimes mirror and illuminate the main story. Sometimes the links to the main plot are strong and sometimes so tenuous the reader will wonder how the story is connected until the critical moment when they intersect.

Subplots come in many styles. An obvious, and often used, subplot is the romance theme. In this case, we see the 'other side' of our main character. Sometimes a subplot follows the antagonist or someone else of power outside the circle of your main group. A subplot might also follow one of the lesser characters or even watch the story unfold through the eyes of someone completely unrelated to what's going on, but seeing the 'high points' and how they affect him or her.

When a subplot becomes as important as the main plot, you have a braided story where the two main characters are equally important and the events of both storylines carry equal impact. These types of stories rarely have subplots because the reader has to jump back and forth already and you don't want to muddy the waters with lesser threads to track. However, in an epic length work, you may have the option of braids and threads (subplots).


Choosing the Character


When you consider a subplot, the first thing to find is either the incidents which are outside the range of the main storyline or find a character who might move outside the protagonist's circle and give a new perspective on the story. I'll start with the characters by looking at a pretend group and seeing how you might weave subplots from them.


The Romantic Interest


The actual main character isn't often a good choice for subplots, except for a romantic theme, because he or she is always going to be at the heart of the trouble anyway. And even in a romantic theme, you might do better by looking at the MC through the significant other's eyes and give perspective on character changes, drive, fears and worries the MC does not willingly exhibit to others. It is rare to show this romantic interest at any time except when the MC is present, unless the character has some secondary role to play.




The 'second in command' might find himself outside the range of the MC's control sometimes and handling problems in his own way. He can have contacts the MC doesn't, and might even slip the reins and walk farther on the dark side than the MC does. Here is an opportunity to run a thread about something the sidekick does which creates a later problem he's trying to fix on his own. Of course the problem has to link back to the main plot.




Many people use the antagonist in a subplot to show both what he or she is doing, and to provide a sense of humanity to counterbalance whatever 'evil' the person is doing. This is where you can show the antagonist has reasons for what is going on and how they are logical to his world view.

However . . . authors often become so enamored of this idea that it can be easy to go overboard and dwell too much on your antagonist so you make your protagonist (usually the MC) look weak.


The Person of Power


Here's someone with power of his own, but who is not on one side or the other, quite possibly because he isn't aware of the sides or because both sides might look equally destructive to someone who doesn't understand the battle. This could be a king in a fantasy world or a mayor in the real world. This is an outsider who sees the results of the confrontations and might not understand the reasoning. What this person does, because this is a person with power, can complicate both sides of the battle.


The Observer


Unlike the Person of Power, this one has nothing he can do to stop the events. He will live with the results and deal with the aftermath. Is the battle over the place where he lives? In the modern world, this might mean a battle between environmentalists and developers, and his little house in the woods is perhaps not going to survive either way. He can have contact with both sides, and while he may take actions, the true battle is between protagonist and antagonist.

Of course, something like this in a fantasy (or even a science fiction novel) can play out in much the same way but for different reasons; the only thing that might matter is who gets the 'power' in the end. In a romantic story, this character could be anyone who is watching the tale like a neighbor or roommate.




You can choose practically anyone in your story to follow a subplot thread. However, the person you choose must have something important to add to the story. The person cannot merely mimic or observe the actions of the main plot; he must also add to the story. Even the Observer (above) must have some actions to perform.


Exercise 1: Choose a person


Several types of characters are good for handling a subplot. Here are a few:

  • Romantic Interest
  • Sidekick
  • Antagonist
  • Person of Power
  • Observer

Choose one of your stories and decide on a character who could handle a subplot. Consider the list above and how each of these types of characters could add to the story. Choose someone who has a good link to the main storyline, but who could move away from the main path of the story and deal with other incidents.


Choosing the incidents


A subplot is not merely telling the same tale from another point of view. While there will often be certain spots where the main story and subplot intersect, it is also important for the subplot to have separate, but related, incidents as well.

There are two ways to consider the subplot points. The first is to think about what important things are happening outside the view of the main character. For instance, while the main character has to be at Situation A in one part of town, what important matter is taking place at Situation B somewhere else? Situation A will, normally, be the more important than Situation B -- though a good twist is to have something at Situation B get out of hand or prove to be other than what the characters expected. This is an excellent situation for the sidekick/second in command to handle. This can be the point where she proves herself, or proves herself wise and backs out, or handles the situation badly.

By the way, a sidekick need not be the protagonist's companion. An antagonist doesn't always work alone, though the stereotype is of the loner, out of contact with the rest of humanity. While this type of character works well for some stories, you might want to give him companions, love interest and all those same ties as the protagonist. These people might do well in subplots of their own as they learn to deal with what their companion is doing.

The antagonist subplot is often the easiest to write as far as what's going on. This plotline will mirror -- and sometimes foreshadow -- the troubles the protagonist faces, giving the reader a glimpse of things the other characters don't know about.

Subplots can come in a number of forms. Here are a few basic ones:

    • Romantic
    • Mirror
    • Minor event that grows
    • Antagonist


Exercise 2:


Find a subplot idea you would like to work with and write out the basic idea. For instance, the romantic interest meets with the MC on several occasions, before and after major events in the story. What is this character's reaction to what's going on? Do you want a few scenes where the MC is not around? What if the Antagonist is making a move on the Romantic Interest in an attempt to get closer to the Protagonist? Has the MC kept the love interest in the dark about a lot of what's going on? Or is he or she better informed than the Antagonist believes?

Write out a list of ideas that would link what the subplot character is doing back to the main storyline.


Creating the timeline


One of the most important aspects of writing a subplot is keeping the timeline straight. The main character is easy track, but if character b moves off on her own for a while, she needs to have the right set of knowledge. There are things she might not know that happened after she left. On the other hand, make certain she hasn't ignored really big things everyone should have realized. If you move events around in a storyline, this can create a serious flaw in the continuum with some people talking about events before they happen.

The easiest way to handle the problem is to create a simple timeline to track your characters. You can do this as a list, something like an Excel table or a notecard program. Even paper notecards can work, but they are not as easy to manipulate when you are moving around things in multiple timelines.

Whatever you use should be easily adjustable so you can move characters and events around. The first thing to do is make note of the big events in the story which will impact the most people. These are the events that might be hard to ignore or miss. Note who were involved (protagonist and antagonist?), and then decide where other, lesser story characters are and if they have any reason to know what's happened.

This, by the way, is also a good way to look for places to build tension. If one character is going off to do something dangerous, why hasn't he told the other character? When the other character learns of the events, what is his reaction to being kept out of the loop? You can also use the timeline to find where characters might cross paths and make the subplot and main plot fully connect. This may be essential to the climax of the story, in fact. You must tie up all those loose threads and have everything settled by the end of the story. Settle the matters in order of importance; lesser items are cleared up first so that the end of the novel is focused on the biggest 'battle' and the largest change in the story.


Exercise 3:


Trace the interaction of each subplot group. Who is where when major events happen? Who has 'line-of-sight' to the events and who has to hear about them second hand? Where do the plots intersect.

Most important, how do the new events of the subplot affect the main storyline? This can be in character interactions or in physical events. Don't be afraid to try different approaches. You are doing these in notes so you can see how they would play out in the story and to get an idea of how to make the subplot important to the main plot. Remember that you want the people in the subplot to touch on the same events as the main plot, whether these people are directly connected to the main plot or not. Make a web of the connections and how plot and subplot affect each other.


Final notes


One question many people have is how many subplots should a story have? There is no easy answer. Most first person stories will not have a subplot because you don't move away from the main character. However, I have read a few books where the main plotline is in first person and a subplot is introduced in third person.

Shorter novels will have fewer subplots; but by the same token, you can expand a novel you feel is too short and too linear with a subplot or two to expand the tale.

One factor to always keep in mind is how the reader will react to what you are adding in. Of course, you can't predict exact reactions, but you can decide how you (as the perfect reader of your own story) would react to being pulled out of the main story to read about the adventures of someone else.

The other factor is readers and character tags. The more characters you 'tag' as important, the harder it becomes for the reader to track them all and remember who is related in which way to the story line. This is a very good reason to keep subplots to a minimum.

Subplots should not, singly or as a group, outshine the main plot. They are used to add more information, show incidents that the main character cannot see, or to let other characters react to incidents in different ways. Use subplots to inform and illuminate.

And have fun