Fiction Writers: Map Your Plot Structure and Weave Together Subplot Threads Like a Pro

Plot structure covers more than the main storyline. Bestselling authors often include one or more subplots. I’ll share my favorite subplot pattern and then show how you can use plot structure to make your writing life more interesting and fun.

What Is Plot Structure?

The main plot structure is a series of events that force the story’s characters into conflicts, generating the emotions readers crave.

The subplot structure amplifies and supports the main plot. A subplot operates like a story within a story. Coming up with subplots operates much like the creation of the main plot.

Subplots help create suspense and tension across many genres, including fantasies, thrillers, mysteries, and romances.

My Favorite Plot Structure

I love stories that weave together threads of multiple storylines.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum offers writers a short yet excellent example of how you can use one or more subplots to tell separate stories that merge at strategic points and amplify the main plot. If you’re interested in a detailed analysis of Baum’s novel, check out this series of posts.

Click the image to enlarge this illustration of the main plot and subplots for Baum’s classic book.

Plot Structure: Parallel & Merge

8 Story Beats Support the Story Spine

Like the main plot, you can use 8 of the 18 Story Beats to build the Story Spine.

If you’re unfamiliar with how to use the Story Spine, take a moment to read this post. When you build a Story Spine, it’s what supports a well-constructed narrative. Think of it as a multifaceted writer’s tool, enabling you to improvise a narrative quickly, identify what it’s about, and edit a bloated draft.

Click the image to enlarge this quick reference for the Story Beats.

The Trellis Method: Plot Lens

What Problems Does Plot Structure Solve?

Top writers frequently use the main plot and subplots to boost engagement with their target audiences.

The plot structure influences the way a story unfolds. Subplots are perfect for changing the shape of the narrative. Picture how a subplot could twist the main plot of a familiar story.

For example:

  • What would happen if The Three Little Pigs story includes a subplot that showcases the pigs’ devious plan to have their adversary inhale a poison the next time the wolf huffs and puffs?
  • In Little Red Riding Hood, what happens if there’s a subplot where Red has a dark secret she never revealed to her grandmother, and that hidden truth compromises the way she deals with the good Samaritan wolf?
  • In Beauty and the Beast, what happens if a subplot deals with Beauty’s body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) and explores how she feels unworthy of the prince’s love?

Writing Principle: One or more subplots can turn a familiar main plot into an engaging story.

Subplot Structure Benefits

You can use subplots to:

  • Reveal the backstories, strengths, and flaws of essential characters.
  • Move the story forward with interesting events.
  • Intensify the conflict and heighten the tension.
  • Emphasize the story’s themes.
  • Uncover information and share with either the chief protagonist, readers, or both.
  • Change the trajectory of the story with surprises and twists.
  • Increase or decrease the pace of the story.
  • Change the story’s tone.
  • Serve as the catalyst for the chief protagonist’s change.
  • Create dual timelines without confusing readers.

Writing Principle: You can mix and match subplot patterns to boost interest in your stories.

Types of Subplot Structures

While researching subplot structures, I found overlapping names and definitions for subplot types.

I also discovered the subplot terms varied based on the writer’s preferences. Likewise, the definitions differed. However, most agreed that subplots could fulfill one or more of the following purposes:

  • Descriptive: The subplots informed the readers, and revealed a character’s backstory, the theme, or other useful information that gave another level of depth to the narrative.
  • Antagonistic: The subplot showcased the opposition to the main character’s goal, and fulfilled that purpose through opposing characters, the environment, or the chief protagonist’s flaws.
  • Romantic: The subplot of interactions between a love interest and the chief protagonist added spice to the main plot, and created opportunities to supply readers with more of the emotions readers crave.

For this post, I’ll use a simplified version of what I call the “Parallel & Merge” pattern to show how you can use the Story Spine to build one or more subplots.

How to Build a Plot and Subplot Structure

A Parallel & Merge main plot and subplot pattern can range from simple to complex.

In its simplest form, the main plot and subplot run parallel until merging at the story’s climax. In more complicated stories (e.g., The Wonderful Wizard of Oz), the main plot and subplot can merge at several logical points within the overall narrative.

To keep it super simple, we’ll focus on how you can use the Story Spine prompts to build a plot and subplot structure that looks similar to this illustration:

Build a Story Spine for Your Story

It’s as simple as completing the Story Spine’s prompts, first to build the main plot and then the subplot.

A writing app (e.g., Scrivener) or a spreadsheet app (e.g., Excel, Numbers, or Google) expedites drafting the Story Spine. That’s why the illustration was drawn in the vertical format. I suggest copying these Story Spine beats (i.e., [HOOK] through [RESOLUTION]) and prompts (i.e., A through N) into your writing or spreadsheet app.

For both the main plot and subplot, use the prompts to to build a Story Spine similar to the one shown in this post.

First Act:

  • Once upon a time, there was a (A. state the lead character’s role) who was (B. describe the lead character and major flaw). [HOOK]
  • And every day, (C. describe the lead character’s routine, including the setting and time). [SETUP]
  • But, one day, (D. state what problem or event) occurred, and (E. name the lead character and state how the person tried to solve the problem or deal with the event). [TRIGGER]
  • And because of that, (F. describe the lead character’s decision to establish a goal) and (G. describe the creation of an initial plan to fulfill that goal). [THRUST INTO 2]

Second Act:

  • And because of that, (H. describe how the lead character now faces a new task or risk). [MIDPOINT]

Third Act:

  • And because of that, (I. describe the consequences of that flaw-driven action) occurred, leaving the lead character feeling (J. describe the lead character’s low point of emotions). [PLUNGE INTO 3]
  • Unfortunately, (K. describe the fortune reversal). A third battle continued until finally, (L. describe how the lead character applied the lesson learned to either win or lose). [CLIMAX]
  • And, ever since then, (M. describe the lead character’s change), which (N. describe the significance of that change to the story’s characters and readers). [RESOLUTION]

Writing Principle: After you complete the Story Spine prompts for both the main plot and subplot, determine how the two (or more) narratives align. Note where they crossover (i.e., merge) at logical points. Then make adjustments to fine tune how the combined overall story will unfold.

A Simple Parallel & Merge Example

In the 1973 film adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Day of the Jackal, the screenwriter used a simple cat (main plot) and mouse (subplot) structure.

  • Main Plot: The assassin named the Jackal accepts the the contract to complete the previously failed assassination of President Charles de Gaulle.
  • Subplot 1: The Police Commissioner assigns Claude Lebel to prevent the assassination of President de Gaulle.
  • Merge: In the climax, the Jackal barely misses the shot and Lebel kills the assassin. In the resolution, only Lebel attends the funeral and observes the burial of the Jackal in an unmarked grave.

A Complex Parallel & Merge Example

You can add more subplots based on your story, as Michael Arndt and the team did for the 2010 film Toy Story 3.

  • Main Plot: As Andy prepares for college, he puts Woody in a box marked for his dorm, places the other toys in a black plastic sack for storage in the attic, and his actions suggest he no longer cares.
  • Subplot 1: Andy’s mom mistakenly puts the sack filled with toys out for garbage collection, and the Toys need a new home.
  • Subplot 2: When the Toys arrive at their new home, they meet friendly Lotso Bear, but he’s really evil.
  • Subplot 3: With Woody gone, Buzz Lightyear becomes the new leader of Toys, but he’s deluded as to his abilities.
  • Subplot 4: At Sunnyside, Barbie falls in love with Ken, but the romance fades.
  • Subplot 5: Based on first impressions, Sunnyside seems like the perfect new home for Toys, but it’s really a toy prison.
  • Subplot 6: Woody abandons the toys to return later and rescue them.
  • Merge: Andy shows he still cares, making sure the toys have a new home with a loving child.

A Clarifying Note about Story Beats

You’ll notice I tagged the Story Beats as either a “Single” scene or “Sequence” of scenes.”

To explain why, consider how most stories unfold:

  • An opening scene fulfills the purpose of hooking readers’ interest. It’s typically an attention-grabbing action that unfolds within a “single” scene.
  • Next, the writer gives readers a setup, which is a “sequence of scenes” that introduces the story world, characters, and major problem.
  • As you complete the Story Body, there are more beats with specific purposes, including single scenes and sequence of scenes. Sometimes, single scenes are replaced with a brief sequence of scenes (e.g., CLIMAX and RESOLUTION).

As you create a Story Spine for the plot and subplot, you’ll focus initially on what you want to happen at each of the 8 beats. Later, as you write the story, you’ll expand what happens into the appropriate single scene or sequence of scenes. Your chosen genres will help you fill out the beats with key scenes and conventions.

Writing Principle: Story Beats are not rules, and like a map, you’re free to take whatever detours are necessary to arrive at the desired destination for your story.

For More Plot Structure Insights

Check out these posts to learn more about Story Plot:

And take a look at this plot development tool:

Leave a Reply

If there’s enough interest, I’ll share more subplot patterns (e.g., Bookends, Lump & Dump, and more). For now, I’d love to hear your thoughts on your favorites plots and subplots.

What plot structure do you use with your chosen genres?

9 responses to “Fiction Writers: Map Your Plot Structure and Weave Together Subplot Threads Like a Pro”

  1. Jacqui Murray Avatar

    I did try to map my story once–in a spreadsheet. What an abysmal failure! This looks much better.

    1. Grant at Tame Your Book! Avatar
      Grant at Tame Your Book!

      The good old spreadsheet does the trick. Not fancy but it works!

  2. Vera Day Avatar

    I think as a newer author I’m safe for now with the basic Save-the-Cat (or Trellis) type of story, but I love the Wizard of Oz graphic, and I can see myself weaving a more complex plot in the future. Who knows, maybe a dual-timeline with a merge at the climax.

    1. Grant at Tame Your Book! Avatar
      Grant at Tame Your Book!

      It’s fun. Make the little gray cells churn. So many possibilities; thus, the spreadsheet comes to the rescue.

  3. D. Wallace Peach Avatar

    I’ve been exploring structure for a while, Grant. I didn’t use any specific structure when I started out. I was lucky, I think, that it worked out. Later, I used the Seven Point Story Structure, and more recently Save the Cat. But I’m going to overlay the Trellis Method on my current WIP when/if I ever finish the first draft. I expect it will be a fascinating exercise. This was an interesting dive into subplots. I’m not that far yet, but it will definitely help flesh out my story when I get to that point. Thanks!

    1. Grant at Tame Your Book! Avatar
      Grant at Tame Your Book!

      Please keep me posted, Diana. Story Beats include a few things Save The Cat leaves out, and dovetail perfectly with the Scene and Sequel Sequence. When your genre’s key scenes and conventions are thrown in… wow!

      1. D. Wallace Peach Avatar

        Yeah. I’m excited to play with it. I just need to finish this darn draft! Lol.

  4. Mike Streckert Avatar
    Mike Streckert

    Great article! Yes, I’d love to see more subplot patterns.

    1. Grant at Tame Your Book! Avatar
      Grant at Tame Your Book!

      Thanks, Mike. I’ll plan a future post on the topic.

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