Amplify Your Main Plot: Turn Random Story Ideas into Subplots (Part 1)

Increase the value of random story ideas by turning them into subplots that amplify your main plot.

Subplots Support Great Stories

The story ideas you’ve collected over time often contain the seeds of subplots.

Interestingly, all characters believe they are the hero of their own story. Weaving together their mini-stories into subplots can turn a so-so narrative into a great one. And it’s easier than you might think.

But how do you do that?

Writing Tools

In this series, I’ll reference several of the writing tools featured in The Trellis Method writing system, and where practical, I’ll show applicable page numbers or file names.

If you missed this post, Fiction Writers: Map Your Plot Structure and Weave Together Subplot Threads Like a Pro, it serves as a primer. A quick review will save cluttering this post and future ones with repeated information.

You can access that prior post here:

Subplots Serve a Purpose

In the fiction world, subplots are like supporting characters.

In many books, the “B” story is often a subplot about an important character (e.g., Sidekick, Mentor, Love Interest, Villain, Co-protagonist). The character provides value to the story by fulfilling a specific purpose essential to the narrative. Likewise, subplots that do not amplify the main plot in meaningful ways are nothing more than time-wasting rabbit trails.

Frivolous characters and subplots risk irritating readers, who all too often voice their displeasure by leaving negative book reviews.

The Shoebox Analogy and Subplots

I’m helping a neighbor write the second edition of his memoir.

He has collected a “shoebox” full of notes (aka mini-stories) spanning eight decades. I’m helping him identify the common threads that link his notes together, and thus, create a cohesive storyline that will interest his grandchildren. When we’re done creating the story, we will format the book for publishing inexpensively via Draft2Digital (See this post: Busy Writers: Self-publish Books and Make Your Writing Dreams Come True).

As fiction writers, we gather ideas and turn them into notes about characters, plots, themes, and scenes, often storing the information in the equivalent of a digital shoebox that serves as our writer’s database (e.g., Apple Notes, Microsoft Word docx, etc.).

What if a Pantser and Plotter Had a Baby?

So, what would you name the child of a Pantser and Plotter?

Let’s christen the baby “Structured Creativity!”

The notes in the Pantser’s shoebox contain plenty of creativity. To make the ideas more useful and valuable, let’s add some of the Plotter’s structure.

The process doesn’t take much time, and it helps you identify subplots that can amplify the main storyline.

The Subplots Process

Whether you use technology (e.g., a digital database) or you prefer old-school (e.g., 3X5 index cards), it’s simple.

  1. Inventory your shoebox of notes.
  2. Prioritize the most significant:
    • Characters?
    • Events?
    • Outcomes?
  3. Identify for each note where your answers Intersect:
    • What excites you about the subplot?
    • What about the subplot will excite readers?
    • How will the subplot amplify your main plot?

Note: We’ll use the Story Spine, Body, and Beats Workbook to turn your notes into subplots.

Types of Subplots

Only your imagination limits the types and uses of subplots.

There are no rules, just principles. Some novels keep it simple with a main plot and one subplot. Other bestsellers (and blockbuster movies) mix several subplots, creating surprise after surprise for audiences. And that’s why it helps to familiarize yourself with the many types of subplots.

For example:


An excellent way to start and end a book. The bookend subplot shows up at the beginning and only reappears at the novel’s conclusion. Bestselling authors like Clive Cussler have used this technique to delight fans.


This subplot can take the form of a person, place, or event that complicates the life of the chief protagonist, often the “cause” that later “effects” the outcome of a scene.


Similar to the complicating subplot, the conflict subplot differs because it’s important to show how the chief protagonist overcomes the challenge. This adds tension and suspense, and can make the character more relatable to readers.


The foil character reflects the chief protagonist’s thoughts, choices, words, and actions. The foil subplot can emphasize these traits and behaviors in a positive or negative light to make key points in the novel.


Often used to share a character’s backstory, this subplot is often subtle and many not immediately register as a subplot. However, the information shared proves essential to the overall narrative.


The chief protagonist learns from a parallel event or a character, something essential to resolving the story’s primary challenge. Without this insight, the lead character could not resolve the story problem.


What may at first seem like an event or person unrelated to the main plot, and that incident or individual, becomes embedded into the primary storyline. The narrative subplot is like a thread that links events from the moment of the occurrence or the character’s entry point to the end of the novel.


The storyline includes secondary story (or more) that parallel the primary narrative, useful for emphasizing the overall theme and educating the chief protagonist on how to solve the story problem. Typically, the parallel subplot merges with the main plot at one or more critical junctures in the story.


Writers pair romantic subplots with many popular genres, including mysteries, thrillers, and action adventures. The relationship can bring out the chief protagonist’s relatable qualities, upping the potential to turn casual readers into loyal fans.

Examples of Subplots

Bestselling novels often contain one or more subplots (e.g., A, B, C, etc.).

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

A: Frodo’s quest for the ring.

B: Legolas and Aragon’s efforts to protect the settlements and destroy the Orcs’ armies.

C: Gandalf and Saruman’s adversarial relationship.

D: The escape of Merry and Pippin from the Orcs.

And…: The series contains many more subplots.

Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling

A: Harry learns the pros and cons of wizardry.

B: His aunt and uncle are concerned magic draws evil, emphasizing the conflict with good.

C: Hagrid’s hatching an illegal dragon in his hut complicates the story, conveying insights into decision making and relationships.

And…: There are many subplots throughout the Harry Potter franchise, which is why so many aspiring writers will benefit from reverse engineering J. K. Rowling’s works.

Toy Story 3 by Michael Arndt

A (Character – Andy): As Andy leaves for college, it appears he no longer cares for the toys and they become castoffs.

B (Event – Toys Trashed): The toys need a new home when Andy’s mom mistakenly puts them in the trash.

C (Character – Lotso Bear): The toys arrive at a new home, Sunnyside, and when they first meet Lotso Bear, everything appears right.

D (Character – Buzz Lightyear): With Woody out of the picture, Buzz Lightyear becomes the new leader.

E (Character – Barbie and Ken): At Sunnyside, Barbie and Ken fall in love.

F (Setting – Sunnyside): Sunnyside appears to be the perfect home, but is it?

G (Character – Woody): Woody left to be with Andy because he thought the toys were in a good place.

Note: As compared to the many hours it takes to read a full-length novel, you can watch a film in a few. So in this series, I’ll use the Toy Story 3 movie to illustrate subplot types.


Bestselling authors use subplots to create storylines that engage readers.

Yes, you can write a book without using subplots. However, what’s the fun of that? Instead, think about how you could turn a simple story into a page-turner with the right combination of subplots.

Stay tuned for more!

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

Which of your favorite books feature subplots?

9 responses to “Amplify Your Main Plot: Turn Random Story Ideas into Subplots (Part 1)”

  1. Vera Day Avatar

    Brandy Heineman managed to fit a murder mystery subplot in a murder mystery story in Like Honey for the Bones. I really enjoyed that book!

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

      I agree, Vera. It’s amazing what’s possible within the many genres, especially with mashups. No limits on imagination!

  2. Dana at Regular Girl Devos Avatar

    When I think of subplots, I think of the TV show Morse. Sometimes there were so many going it was hard to keep track!

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

      Fantastic observation, Dana! Although our imagination knows no limits, the audience always has the last say to what they find entertaining, informative, and inspiring.

      1. Dana at Regular Girl Devos Avatar

        …and sometimes frustrating and exhausting!

  3. Jacqui Murray Avatar

    Subplots are trickier than they sound. Thanks for this rundown.

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

      Yes, and it gets even trickier when there’s a mix of genres. Thanks, Jacqui! Next post I’ll give specific examples.

  4. D. Wallace Peach Avatar

    I don’t have a shoebox of ideas, Grant. I’m a one story at a time thinker. That said, I found your list of subplot categories very useful in designing a story. My current WIP (which is currently back burnered to other life demands) needs subplot work, so this post is timely. Thanks for the thought-starters. 🙂

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

      You’re welcome, Diana. I always appreciate your insights. Please keep us posted as your WIP progresses.

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