Friday, April 12, 2013

Why have a historical subplot?

by Deborah Swift

I thought it might be nice to have a post on the craft of writing historical fiction as many of this blog's followers are writers like myself. So today I thought I would look at the art of the subplot.

What is a subplot?
Think of a subplot as a miniature novel embedded within the main novel that you are working on. Many writers do this without thinking as part of their natural writing process, and create several additional plots in their books. Subplots are particularly useful in historical fiction because often the main plot is dictated by historical events that a writer cannot (or doesn't want to) change. 

Why have a subplot?
The function of a subplot can have many aspects:

To give the impression that your historical world is teeming with complex characters and background action, just like in real life, and to supply a plausible social context.

To give a break from the main storyline, particularly if it is one of historical tragedy, political complexity, or in some other way relentlessly exhausting. This can be for comic relief, or just to introduce a different tone.

To expand the dilemmas of the protagonist by showing how they affect the wider world, particularly if your protagonist is influential (Kings etc). Often the subplot can include characters of a different or lower class, a different culture or different background.

To show how your protagonist's nature changes over time by his/her reactions to events in the subplot, and by introducing unforseen complications or difficulties in the subplot that further test character.

To extend the main action, weaving in another narrative, so that resolutions don't come to quickly or too early, and to enable the plausible passing of time. This is particularly useful where historical evidence leaves gaps that need to be filled.

To add an element of unpredictability where the historical facts are widely known, and the reader knows what the likely ending will be.

To reflect the overall themes and concerns of the novel through another prism, so enhancing the impact of the novel as a whole.

* * *

A single plot line in a historical novel often makes the novel appear 'thin'. Subplots flesh out the historical world and act as the glue or connecting thread that holds together the main events. The most effective subplots support the main plot to add depth, rather than overwhelm it. In most novels, the secondary action usually begins after the main plotline has been established and finishes a little earlier, and for a writer takes up less words than the main plot. 

I love to work with subplots - they give me the chance to work with a diversity of characters in their place within history. In fact I find subplots are so tempting that I often have to cut them when they do not directly enhance or add significance to my main story, or if the characters want to expand to take over the whole book!

Writers, how do you like working with subplots? How do you balance your plotting? And readers out there, can you think of a subplot that was so fascinating it took your attention away from the main action?

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More about me:

Find out more about my books 
The Lady's Slipper
The Gilded Lily
A Divided Inheritance (Oct 2013)


  1. Nice post.

    Now here's a question: given that MCs in HF are often invented characters rather than real-life, shouldn't the historical events they affect form the sub-plot(s)?

  2. Hi Jonathan, yes of course you're quite right - in many of them they do. The major characters are not the the real-life historical personages and the history forms in effect the sub-plot. My own novels do exactly that. But some novelists do take biographical events and make those the main story, and many arguments about truth and accuracy ensue!

  3. Hmm, in my first draft of Turn of the Tide I had a fairly significant sub-plot - but I axed it in a subsequent draft, leaving everything related to the main plot - which in a way was liberating. I haven't made a final decision yet re Book 2.

  4. I love subplots and try to have a few in my historical romance novels. It's like layering's hard work to blend it with the main plot but the finished product is so worth it. Thanks for the encouragement to do this!

  5. Very good post. I enjoyed it. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Deborah,
    What a great post. While designing my novel, a timeslip and first of a trilogy, I established my "cast" and as I began writing I found the subplot(s)spontaneously popping up. The intertwining of their lives led to at least two important sub-plots. I didn't want cardboard characters and wrote extensive biographies and as I wrote, they spoke. And a layered, more detailed story emerged. Thanks for bring this topic up and yes, writers do follow this blog - we're a very curious bunch who don't get out very often and love to see what other writers are doing.

  7. Thank you to everyone who has commented on this post, great to hear how you've added/subtracted subplots and how they affected your finished novel.


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