How To Use Sub-Plots As A Source Of Conflict

How To Use Sub-Plots As A Source Of Conflict

Are you looking for more conflict ideas in your fiction writing? In this post, we look at how to use sub-plots as a source of conflict in your stories.

So far, we have looked at, general sources of conflict, non-violent conflict, physical conflict, setting, and conversation/dialogue as sources of conflict. Today, we will look at sub-plots and conflict.

A book is made up of scenes. If you are aiming for 80 000 words you will need about 60 scenes. These scenes will be between 1200 – 1500 words. This is just a guideline. Some writers write fewer long scenes and others write more short scenes, but in the end, we hope to end up with a novel.

That is a lot of writing and our main plot, just like us, can always do with a bit of support. That is where the sub-plot comes in. Sub-plots show us that the story is not happening in isolation. It shows us that our character has more going on in their life besides just the main story goal.

When it rains, it pours, right? We use sub-plots to complicate our protagonist’s life, even more than the main plot already does. You know those weeks, when you’re up for a major presentation at work that could lead to an increase and a promotion and you just know you’re going to ace it, but then: your car dies, your computer crashes, your dog gets sick and you meet the love of your life. That’s the sub-plot.

Top Tip: If you want an in-depth lesson on sub-plots with exercises, please buy The 6 Sub-Plots Workbook.

The Function Of Sub-Plots:


  1. Add complexity to the story.
  2. Add conflict.
  3. They show and force character growth.
  4. They provide relief.

How Many Sub-Plots Should You Have?

Again, less is more. Too many sub-plots dilute the impact of your story. In a novel of 80 000 words aim for two to three sub-plots.

When Do I add A Sub-Plot?

Sub-plots should start after the main story goal has been established. If you are using a prologue that introduces the sub-plot, your inciting moment and the next few scenes should establish the main story goal before you return to the sub-plot.

Sub-plots should also end and be resolved before the main action. Some sub-plots, like the romantic sub-plot, sometimes end after the main sub-plot. We can keep those around until the very end when the baddie has been caught and the lovers finally share a kiss. In certain genres, like horror, a part of the story can be left unresolved to keep us wary or terrified.

Small Wins, Small Losses

Your character can’t fail in every single scene. They’ll never get to the end. Let them win in some scenes. If your character succeeds at achieving the main story goal, let them fail at the sub-plot and vice versa. If they fail at the main story goal let them succeed at the sub-plot.

Example: ‘The cop catches the killer, but his wife leaves him.’ or ‘The kidney transplant was a success, but the donor is now addicted to painkillers.’

Top Tip: If you want an in-depth lesson on sub-plots with exercises, please buy The 6 Sub-Plots Workbook.

How To Use Sub-Plots As A Source Of Conflict

The supporting cast is great to use for the sub-plot. Use your Friend character and The Love Interest. Remember, the Friend character helps the protagonist to achieve their goal. The Love Interest’s primary focus is the protagonist themselves and their wellbeing. These are very simple explanations, and of course, they can become more complex.

The Friend can become The Love Interest, which can be the sub-plot. The conflict in the sub-plot can be between The Love Interest and Friend and The Protagonist is stuck in the middle.

It is important to remember that the sub-plot must be integral to the plot. If it doesn’t affect the main plot or if it can stand alone it isn’t a sub-plot or it isn’t needed. The friend or the Love Interest are important roles for the protagonist’s life.

Some Ideas For Sub-Plots

Amanda Patterson has defined six sub-plots in fiction. Let’s see how you can use them to add conflict.

1. Romance – Example: Rocky Or The Hunger Games

This is always a popular choice for a sub-plot and helps show the softer side of the character. It’s also good to show some vulnerabilities that you may want to explore and exploit. It also offers relief or hope in a story with a more sombre or serious tone. If your character fails at the main story goal you can let them win in the romantic sub-plot.

2. Growth – Thematic Or Deals With Backstory

Coming-of-age is often a sub-plot in stories with younger protagonists, for example, Harry Potter. But it can also be about a father finally choosing his family over his career. Or an abused partner who finds the strength to leave the relationship.

3. Habits, Addictions & Traits – Trainspotting Or Monk

Your main character or a supporting character can struggle with an addiction or a disorder. This can complicate the story. Think of Harry Hole, Monk, or House.

4. Phobias & Fears – Kaz Brekker Or Robert Langdon

Kaz Brekker in Six of Crows wears gloves, this is the result of childhood trauma. Robert Langdon got stuck in a well and suffers from claustrophobia. These phobias help to create fuller characters and can complicate scenes.

5. Dreams & Desires – Macbeth Or The Greatest Showman

Are your characters so intent on their dreams and ambitions that it will eventually or almost cost them everything? Or are their dreams the only thing keeping them happy or even sane?

6. Comedy – The Comedic Duo

Many books and movies have a comic duo. R2-D2 and C-3PO, Merry and Pippin, and The Weasley Twins. They offer relief when the story is heavy.

The Last Word

Sub-plots help you show how your characters grow and will help you build your world. They add depth to your plot and create awesome conflict for your story.

Top Tip: If you want an in-depth lesson on sub-plots with exercises, please buy The 6 Sub-Plots Workbook.

Source for image: LucasFilm

Mia Botha by Mia Botha

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Top Tip: If you want an in-depth lesson on sub-plots with exercises, please buy The 6 Sub-Plots Workbook.

Posted on: 12th May 2021