Monday, April 27, 2009

Using Subplots in Mysteries

© Chester Campbell 2009 all rights reserved

Subplots can give new dimension to a mystery by deepening characterization through actions that don’t immediately effect the main plot and providing background to characters and situations. Though they serve an important purpose, I found it odd that the two writing books I keep handy barely mention them.

Good old Wikipedia gives this definition:

“A subplot, sometimes referred to as a ‘B story’ or a ‘C story’ and so on, is a secondary plot strand that is auxiliary to the main plot. Subplots may connect to main plots, in either time and place or in thematic significance. Subplots often involve supporting characters, those besides the protagonist or antagonist.”

Subplots are about contrast and not just a rehashing of actions or events taking place in the main plot, or the “A” plot as some call it. There can be several subplots going on at the same time. One could involve a relationship between the main character and a secondary character. Another might deal with a situation that does not appear related to the main story at first.

One writer divides subplots into two types: Those that run parallel and don't really affect each other, and those that are dramatically hinged together. I’m not sure the first type works too well in a mystery, where everything that happens needs to be linked in some fashion. In the ideal situation, subplots should end at the same time or just before the main plot. The resolution of one should set up the resolution of the other.

My new PI Sid Chance mystery, The Surest Poison, is a good example of how subplots affect the main story. The central plot involves Sid’s efforts to locate the people responsible for dumping a toxic chemical behind a small plant a dozen years ago. There are two primary subplots. One helps build the relationship between Sid and Jaz LeMieux, his female associate, through solving a problem with her housekeeper’s grandson. The other concerns a poker club whose members include a homicide detective, a patrol sergeant, a former Criminal Court judge, a retired crime reporter, Jaz, and Sid. They provide help with the case.

Though subplots are interconnected with the main plot, their impact appears indirect until the end of the story.

The main character’s relationship with someone of the opposite sex is a familiar subplot in mysteries. In his Reacher books, Lee Child always has an interior story involving a sexy female, either a fellow investigator or a damsel in distress.

Crafting a subplot is as simple as writing a smaller piece that takes place simultaneously with the main story. It embellishes an idea or a character in a new way and impacts the novel’s resolution. One writer says more than three subplots can distract the reader and muddle the story. So best not to get too carried away with them. Too many subplots might spoil the mysterious broth.

Today’s visit is part of Chester Campbell’s Blog Book Tour. He will give away several copies of his books in drawings at the end of the tour on May 1. Leave a comment here and you may be a winner. For more details click this link ( to his website.

About the author:

Chester Campbell is the author of two mystery series featuring private investigators. The Surest Poison, first book in the Sid Chance series dealing with a chemical pollution case, is just out. He has written four Greg McKenzie novels featuring a retired Air Force investigator and his wife. Prior to turning to fiction writing, Campbell worked as a newspaper reporter, freelance writer, magazine editor, political speechwriter, advertising copywriter, public relations professional and association executive. An Air Force intelligence officer in the Korean War, he retired from the Air Force Reserve as a lieutenant colonel. Currently secretary of the Southeast Chapter of Mystery Writers of America and president of the Middle Tennessee Chapter of Sisters in Crime, he lives in Madison , TN with his wife, Sarah, and an 11-year-old grandson.


Chester Campbell said...

Thanks for hosting me today, Marta. I'll check back later after doing a little subplotting.

s.w. vaughn said...

Very cool post, Chester. This is a great breakdown and explanation of subplots - and for me, a much needed reminder. :-) So, thanks for the inspiration!

Anonymous said...

Another well written article, Chester. As well as you write ABOUT writing, I can tell you are indeed a good writer. :)

Marta Stephens said...

Chester, thanks so much for posting on MB4 today.

One of the key elements to my Sam Harper Crime series are the subplots. As in real life, every character has a story to tell. Those stories are either directly or indirectly connected to the main plot, but they always have a purpose. As you indicated, the resolution of one subplot should lead to the resolution of another.

Best of luck with your tour!

Chester Campbell said...

Hi, S.W., glad you were inspired.

Marvin, always the flatterer.

Good comment, Marta. l like subplots that don't seem connected at first, but turn out to be in the end.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

I'm with you on that, Chester. The elusive connections are sometimes the most satisfying. It's great when it all comes together in the end. ;o) Best of luck with your series and thanks for being our guest today!

Kathryn Magendie said...

Stopping by to see what Miz Marta's been up to... *smiling*

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Another interesting and well-written article, Chester.

Jane Kennedy Sutton

Marta Stephens said...

Hello Miz Kat, Miz Marta's been doing some subplotting of her own. ;)

Kim Smith said...

Subplots are the glue that sticks a plot together at the beginning, middle, and end. Thanks for the great post, Chester! I have got to get busy and join your organization one of these days!

Patricia Stoltey said...

Excellent article, Chester. Sometimes the sub-plots serve as mini-arcs within the larger story arc and are intended to increase tension. Others add humor or romance with more impact on the characters than on the story. Either way, I agree with you. Too many sub-plots are like too many cooks....Pat

Charlotte Phillips said...

Hi Chester,

I love subplots - especially when they show us different aspects of the main characters.


Chester Campbell said...

Thanks for all of your comments. You've added some great insights into the subject.

Sheila Deeth said...

Your article comes with perfect timing, as I'd just realized what I'm currently writing should be split into plot and subplot.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.