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How to Create Mystery Subplots

mystery subplot, add dimension to your mystery novel

Subplots in the Story

Subplots add depth to your mystery story by giving readers a deeper vision of your protagonist, the detective. They can

  • Add dimension to the main plot
  • Test the protagonist’s motivation and ability to solve the puzzle
  • Create different points of view on the central murder victim and suspects

In a mystery, the subplots enhance the detective and often lead her down false trails that prevent her from finding the murderer.

Two Types of Subplot

There are many variations on subplots. Taken as a whole they fall into two main categories.

  1. Affinity Subplots – These stories within the story involve the detective in a positive relationship. As well as the traditional love interest, other positive subplots include friendship, mentoring of young peopleoften a love interest between young adults, and even relationships with animals.
  2. Opposition Subplots – These plot arcs involve opposition to the detective. A jealous cohort, corrupt boss, political conflict, riots, acts of God, and other outside influences that distract and thwart the detective from solving the mystery.

How To Use Subplots in Your Mystery

​Mystery readers enjoy the puzzle, so the first criterion is to keep your subplots minor additions to the overall story. Focus on your story. Novice writers should have no more than two subplots and focus on the craft of weaving them into the main storyline.

Outline the subplot from beginning to end, just the way you outline your main story. Your subplot is a mini-story so give it a beginning, middle, and end with plot points or beats depending on what structure you use. Your subplot is simpler and have fewer steps to resolution than your main story.

Then look at your main story outline and position the episodes of your subplot within the main story outline.

The main action of the subplots will take place in Act II. That means your subplot will go from beginning to end within the second act. Remember the main story takes precedence. If you have two subplots, bring them to conclusion in different places within the main story.

Put On Your Subplot Kid Gloves

Subplots can take beginning writers down long trails that lead away from the main story. It’s best to handle them with kid gloves, with a light and gentle touch.

If a subplot doesn’t thematically contradict or resonate the Controlling Idea of the main plot, if it doesn’t set up the introduction of the main plot’s Inciting Incident, or complicate the action of the main plot, if it merely runs alongside, it will split the story down the middle and destroy its effect.
Story, Robert McKee

​Before you plan your subplot consider how it enhances the main story. Your detective is out to find and confront a murderer. You don’t want to go too far afield with your subplot.

Subplot Safety Valve for New Writers

​Learning to create and use subplots is part of the craft of writing. For your first mystery novel choose one subplot that develops your main plot. Drive the main plot by adding breadth to the characters and intrigue to the storyline.

Go deeper into your detective by adding conflict that exposes his flaws, or his strengths. Your subplot can also gives readers insight into your detective’s motivations for solving the crime.

Choose one aspect and develop your subplot. Then add your subplot scenes into the main story sequence. You’ll find the pre-planning you do will help you write a story with a subplot that is fluid and keeps the reader turning pages.

Zara Altair
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy. Her course for beginning writers Write A Killer Mystery is coming soon.

Photo by David Clarke on Unsplash

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