The answer to identifying your story’s subplots lies in the protagonist’s relationships with the supporting characters. Conflicts will arise in those relationships as a result of the action the protagonist takes throughout the story. These characters will have their own goals and internal conflicts that in turn create conflict for the protagonist. The resolution of this conflict should either lead to the story’s climax, occur during the climax, or come about because of the climax. And, above all, the subplot should tie into the story’s main themes.
There are four types of subplots that might feature in your story:
Let’s take a look at each one by studying the subplots in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Aladdin.
Lara Jean’s relationships with both Margo and Josh, while not as prominent in the story as her relationship with Peter, still have a profound impact on Lara Jean’s journey. The conflict within these storylines is also intricately woven into the main plot.
Let’s dissect one of these subplots to see how it complements the main plot.
|Supporting character’s goal||To speak to Lara Jean about the love letter he received from her.|
|Conflict this creates||Lara Jean feels guilty about having written a love letter to her sister’s boyfriend, so she goes to great lengths to avoid talking to him. When Josh finally gets his chance to talk to Lara Jean, she refuses to open up and their relationship remains strained.|
|Resolution||This conflict is resolved when Lara Jean finally comes clean to Josh about her fake relationship with Peter and her reasons for starting it. She tells Josh that what she felt for him wasn’t real love, something she didn’t realise until she developed true feelings for Peter.|
|Lesson learned||When Lara Jean admits to Josh that she can’t tell Peter how she feels because she’s scared he’ll reject her, Josh points out that at least she’ll know how he feels. He urges her to tell people how she feels when she feels it — tying the subplot into the theme of honesty — and points out that Peter would even be in her life if he’d never received her love letter.|
|Connection to climax||The resolution of this subplot is one of the events that leads directly to the climax. Lara Jean sees Josh’s point; she knows if she doesn’t tell Peter how she feels, she might lose him for good.|
Lara Jean’s former best friend and Peter’s ex-girlfriend, Gen, plays the role of an antagonist. The subplot centering around her is integral to creating conflict in Lara Jean and Peter’s relationship.
|Supporting character’s goal||To make Lara Jean’s life a living hell.|
|Conflict this creates||Gen does what she can to make things difficult for Lara Jean and Peter, including telling Peter she wants to go on the ski trip with him, letting Lara Jean believe that Peter gave her Lara Jean’s scrunchie, telling Lara Jean that Peter went to her room on the ski trip, and posting the video of Lara Jean and Peter in the hot tub on social media.|
|Resolution||This conflict is resolved when Lara Jean confronts Gen about posting the video. She asks why she would do such a horrible thing. Gen denies posting the video but says she’s glad everyone will now know Lara Jean isn’t so innocent. She reveals that she’s held a grudge against Lara Jean since middle school after Lara Jean kissed Peter during a game of spin the bottle when she knew Gen liked him.|
|Lesson learned||Lara Jean thought no one ever paid attention to what she was doing, that the only drama in her life was in her head. But the incident with Gen teaches her that she isn’t as invisible as she thought — tying the subplot into the theme of self-confidence.|
|Connection to climax||The resolution of this subplot is one of several events that leads to the climax. Lara Jean’s confidence is boosted when she realises that people do pay attention to her. In an odd way, she feels as if she matters. Ultimately, this confidence gives her the strength she needs to tell Peter how she feels in the story’s climax.|
A contagonist is a character who has their own agenda. They’re not necessarily bad, or even working against the protagonist, but in trying to achieve their own goals, they cause problems for the protagonist. Lara Jean’s sister Kitty is a contagonist.
|Supporting character’s goal||To help Lara Jean get a boyfriend.|
|Conflict this creates||To achieve her goal, Kitty sends out Lara Jean’s love letters, causing major embarrassment for Lara Jean and guilt at having written a love letter to Margot’s boyfriend.|
|Resolution||Kitty eventually admits to sending the love letters and Lara Jean ends up forgiving her — but Kitty is still intent on achieving her goal. When Lara Jean admits to Josh that she likes Peter but is scared he’ll reject her, Kitty reveals she saved all of Peter’s notes that he’d given to Lara Jean when they were fake dating but that she’d thrown out unopened.|
|Lesson learned||Lara Jean reads Peter’s notes and realises that his sentiments were genuine. He wasn’t faking everything.|
|Connection to climax||The resolution of this subplot leads directly to the climax. Peter’s notes give Lara Jean hope that maybe he likes her too and won’t reject her. This hope spurs her into action and she goes to tell him how she feels.|
When an author wishes to give the reader greater visibility of the protagonist’s relationship with a supporting character, they often choose to write some scenes from that character’s point of view. In romance, authors often choose to make the love interest a minor POV character. You should, however, have a good reason for doing so, because in making a support character a minor POV character, you are elevating them to the status of “mini-protagonist”. This means you will need to explore their character arc in almost as much depth as the protagonist’s buttheir journey towards achieving their goals must contribute to the protagonist’s journey in a fundamental way. In this sense, the minor POV character’s journey becomes a subplot to the story’s main plot.
As To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before has no minor POV character, let’s study this type of subplot by looking at Jasmine’s point of view in Aladdin. As you can see, this type of subplot is broken down differently to the first three types, because it focuses on the supporting character’s journey and how it ultimately ties to the protagonist’s.
|Supporting character’s goal||To become sultan.|
|Supporting character’s motivation||Her mother always used to say that you can only be as happy as your least happiest subject. She wants to rule so she can make her subjects happy.|
|Obstacles in supporting character’s way||The law requires her to marry a prince and it’s her husband who would become her father’s successor.|
|Conflict experienced by minor POV character||Jasmine is not opposed to marriage; she just believes she was born to do more than marry a useless prince. Then Aladdin shows up as Prince Ali and she starts to develop feelings for him, but only once he starts being himself.|
|Resolution||Jasmine and Aladdin join forces to defeat Jafar. In doing so, Aladdin shows his true character and Jasmine displays courage and strength, proving to her father that she is the future of Agraba. He makes her sultan, telling her that as sultan she can change the law.|
|Connection to climax||The resolution of this subplot comes about because of the climax. In defeating Jafar and becoming sultan, Jasmine is free to marry for love, which ties into the themes of freedom and confinement. After witnessing Aladdin’s true character, she decides he’s the one she wants and the two get married, finally bringing the two characters’ journeys together and tying in to the theme of society and class.|