If you’re writing a short story, there’s probably no time for much of a subplot. You only have so many words to get your hero inside from the dark and stormy night, into the castle, past the creepy caretaker, rescue the damsel in distress from the horrible monster, and get them both home safely.
It’s a straight shot. Beginning, middle, end.
Novella’s are longer, and they give you more room to work, but usually the subplots are minimal. It’s kind of a halfway point between short story and novel. I’ve read some good ones lately, but the form itself is not my favorite. There’s usually not enough meat in the middle. Just enough complexity to leave me feeling let down when it’s over too soon. Most novellas feel unfinished to me. Not all, but most do.
Now, a full-length novel? If you have nothing but one single plot running in a straight line from beginning to end, well, you’re going to lose me.
Subplots are incredibly important. For a full novel, the plot is the backbone of the whole thing. But the subplots are what keep the skeleton standing upright.
- help build characterization, not just for your hero/heroine, but also for the supporting cast. If they have their own problems and agendas, they become real. This helps the main character become real.
- help the pacing. Your main plot is probably going in a steady incline toward the big climax scene. But you can’t keep your readers breathless and tense for every single scene. Sometimes you have to bring the pace down a few notches, let the reader catch a breath. Subplots can do that.
- can be used as a slight of hand, causing the reader to look in another direction while you’re setting up the next big scene.
- are good for comic relief when things get a little too heavy. You have to be mindful of emotional pacing, as well as action.
- add more depth to a story, explaining the world you’ve taken your readers into, without actually telling them outright the things you want them to know.
So, yes. They’re extremely important in a full-length novel, unless you want your skeleton to just sit there grinning at you.
Give it some sinew and muscle. Make it get up and dance.