How many subplots in a novel are acceptable?

In my Suspense/Thriller Writers’ group on Facebook, one author asked, “How many subplots in a book are acceptable?”

Most of the writers thought that one or two subplots was enough, but horror writer Rob M. Miller gave a wonderful response that I’m reposting here. Considering the ephemeral nature of Facebook, in a couple of days his comment would have disappeared into the great maw of FB, and I didn’t want it to be lost forever. Rob said:

A broad question begging for a broad answer, of which there is only one that’s truly honest, even if horribly vague:

As many as the author can competently handle.

In the hands of a master, there can be many subplots, even into the double and triple digits, as can be read in the incredible work Shogun by James Clavell, or The Hobbit by Tolkien.

But to have a masterful work, there doesn’t have to be many in order to keep the reader hooked and hungry for — One…More…Chapter!

Wiki Answers says that “subplot is like the secondary plot of your story. It means additional plot(s) to a movie, show, book, or play that help contribute to the main plot. Subplots are less important than main plots.”

swIn Star Wars you have the following plot or through line: Ragtag rebels work to stop a space station from cementing the evil emperor’s hold on the galaxy.

That’s the plot. The spine. It’s the elevator speech, as well. Short, simple, and concatenates the story. But it’s also a bit simple — isn’t it? — even for Star Wars, which is not the most complex of stories.

How many subplots are in Star Wars?

I concede the number could be argued, but c’mon, fellow writers, there is more than one, and there is more than two. The mentoring of Luke, Chewie and Han as wanted criminals (smugglers), the romantic tripod of Leia, Han, and Luke, and in my view, even more.

Subplots, mini plots, lines of suspense, how many characters there should be and the proper ratio of bad to good. These things can all be made as complicated as desired, or as complicated as hell even when not desired.

The key is to simplify the approach, at least in one’s head, like with the through line given for “Star Wars.” The final product might be beautifully written and wonderfully controlled as an epic master work, such as Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series, or Tolkien’s set of Hobbit adventures, or a chunky Tom Clancy novel . . . or it can be an equally wonderful, but streamlined story. There are no rules, save for don’t write boring. There are conventions, tropes, schemes and paradigms, some of more value than others.

What to do?

Author, know thyself, and then stretch 10%, putting down a tale as best you can, whether outlined or not, large-staged or mini, small cast or jam-packed.

If you want “one” of something, go for it. Shorts, for example, are a form that generally works better when they are a drag race from point A to B, and which end in a singular climax — but I’ve read exceptions. Perhaps your idea is an exception, too. But don’t be afraid of two, or forty-two. Keep track of stuff . . . be forgiving when it turns out that Hemingway was write about first drafts being shite, and then, like a conductor or architect, you can make sure that all the balls are being juggled properly.

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With a love for reading and writing that started in his youth, Rob has traveled far to get to the place where he can now concentrate on breaking into the horror market.

Born and raised in the “micro-hood” of Portland, Oregon, he grew up as the oldest of three children, the son of a book-lover and a book-hater.

It was after two years of free-lance stringer work, and a number of publishing credits, that he tired of non-fiction and decided to use his love of the dark, personal terrors, and talent with words to do something more beneficial for his fellow man -– SCARE THE HELL OUT OF HIM.