Being a Better Writer: Concluding a Subplot

Hey people! First off, apologies for being a bit late today. I stayed up late making sure the ad campaign for the Big 300 Sale had properly launched, slept late as a result, and then got sidetracked by a lot media news (Bethesda, if you’re curious).

So yes, this post is late. But for a good cause: The Big 300 Sale! Which I’ve mentioned twice now, so some of you are probably wondering “All right, what is that, and is it a sale like the name implies?”

The latter first then: Yes! It is a sale. The biggest one I’ve ever done. And that name?

Last week I hit a major milestone. I now have, across my books, more than 300 reviews and ratings in total. It’s a milestone I’ve been working towards for some time now and have finally achieved. Oh, and the other good part of that news?

My average review score is still 4.6 Stars out of 5. That’s right. Over 300 reviews on my work from readers and fans, and I’m still sitting at a 4.6-Star Average. On a 10-point scale that’s a score of 9.2.

That is a reputation I feel quite proud of.

Anyway, you can check out the sale on my Amazon page here. Everything is 50% off or more. To lay it out, this means—

One Drink is free. Dead Silver is $0.99. Shadow of an Empire is $2.99. Colony is $1.99, while the sequel Jungle is $3.99. And Unusual Events: A “Short” Story Collection is also $1.99.

So yeah, whole lot of value there. The sale runs through this Friday, so grab them while it’s hot!

All right, now that you’ve heard the news … Let’s talk writing. This week, we tackle the penultimate topic on Topic List #15 (so again, get those suggestions ready). Today, we’re going to talk about concluding subplots.

So in all fairness, we could have probably talked about this a few months ago when we did a whole series on subplots, but it didn’t come up. In fact, for a while I wasn’t sure I even wanted to tackle this topic, because at its most basic, it seems fairly self-explanatory: Subplots should conclude or you’re doing something wrong. Even if it carries over from one book to another (and we’ll talk about this further down) or the conclusion isn’t as ground-breaking as expected, a subplot should conclude.

Sands. Mostly. And we’ll talk about that too. Because as some of you might have guessed, today’s topic isn’t as much going to be about how to let a subplot conclude, because that’s just letting a subplot reach its conclusion, but how to use that conclusion as a tool in your story.

Confused? Well I’ve got a handy analogy here that should help clear this up. Consider a classic wall tapestry. Something ancient that stretches across a wall and tells a story. Like a book, right? Now, think of the artistry of the images. A clever, careful artist will like put shapes and colors in that tapestry that pull the eye along to illustrate the story. Sort of like panels in a comic book, these colors and shapes may not be part of the story being told, but they frame it and give the audiences’ eyes something to follow.

Subplots are like those framing threads in a tapestry. They’re there to support the primary story, to add additional elements and “color.” But they don’t end at the same time. Good framing elements drawing a viewer’s eye along will start and stop where needed. Sometimes there will be several of them guiding a viewer along at one time, and some will finish while others start. And so it is with subplots.

A subplot doesn’t need to tie itself up right before, after, or during the big climax of a story. In fact, a story that confined itself to all the subplots being resolved in such a manner would be so heavily loaded into the back end it would look like a pickup truck with an elephant standing on the tailgate. It’d be out of balance. And as we noted when talking about subplots earlier this year, part of the value of a subplot is to bring a story balance, to allow subplots to add depth to a story that might be stretched during a certain segment.

So yeah, do not conclude all your subplots at the end of a story. In fact, you don’t have to end them at all!

I can hear a few of you scratching your heads at that one. We’ll come back to it. For right now, let’s talk about ending a subplot during a story. First third, quarter, halfway … whatever. Let me make something crystal clear.

There is nothing wrong with this. See, when a subplot concludes, that’s a resolution. It may be small compared to the overall plot resolution, but it’s a resolution all the same … And resolutions actually feel really good to read.

In a way, they’re sort of like “landing platforms” along the climb for a reader. If we use another analogy and compare reading a book to climbing a ladder, a subplot reaching a conclusion is like a small “rest platform” along the way, allowing the reader a chance to breath easy, see the characters reach an achievement, however small in the grand scheme of things, before moving further up the ladder toward the end.

So, for example, if we take the classic fantasy trope of a young hero leaving a farm village and heading out into the wider world, sometimes you may see a subplot threading through those opening chapters, anything from the protagonists dissatisfaction with the smaller world to their relations with people there. And then, right before they set out on this journey, that little subplot will reach a conclusion. It might be the kind of conclusion that leads into a further subplot later (like a character telling the departing protag to seek someone where they’re going for extra help, or a parting gift) or it may just be the last note of that little part of the story we see, but to the reader it is a small conclusion tying things up before setting out on a larger, more massive journey. It’s a spot for the reader to catch their breath and look at the accomplishments thus far (plus add this one to the list).

Have you ever been halfway through a project but had little celebration points along the way. Like “I finished this bit off, what a relief, and look how much I’ve done, go me?” That’s the kind of good feeling a subplot conclusion can bring with it.

Of course, as in real life, if you make too many little conclusions, stops along the way to your goal, they lose their meaning. So it is with concluding subplots. Too many subplots being resolved too quickly, winding throughout a story in high numbers, can overwhelm the actual story and hide it from view. At some point if you have enough “viewing platforms,” you’ll have built stairs covering your ladder.

Don’t do that. Moderation.

Okay, so we’ve talked a bit about the value of concluding a subplot. Let’s talk a little bit about how to use that value. Subplots, as we’ve discussed before, can be used as a good “support” or shoring during a section of a story that’s stretching. This can even apply to a single chapter. Let me offer you an example from something I spent last week working on in Starforge. Spoiler free, of course.

The chapter I spent last week working on was a larger one, and covered a large period of time that was mostly, for the viewpoint character, little but waiting. However, what livened that waiting up was a subplot that was mostly played for laughs interwoven into the chapter as a whole concerning some of the things the character was teaching during this wait. The subplot came to a conclusion before the end of the chapter, but served to break up the “wait” with moments of levity … right before the chapter ended on a serious, more somber note. The reader is able to catch a breath with the levity, and then descend into holding it once more as the story moves forward.

This is exactly the kind of value you can use concluding a subplot for. Prior to the rewrite of this chapter (I ended up rewriting the entire thing) one of its issues was that the “wait” was a “weight” on the reader. It was just a stretch of things that were useful and interesting, but felt too “samey.” It became monotonous, climbing a ladder without a break. Inserting that amusing sideplot (and referencing a second one that will run a larger part of the story) allowed the reader moments to rest and take in the “view.”

Some of you might be thinking “So a subplot, or rather the concluding of one, can help with pacing?” Pat yourselves on the back, because you’re correct. A little conclusion in the middle of a long stretch can be a great break for the reader.

You can also use a subplot conclusion as a “transition” to another part of the story, like the opening of classic fantasy we spoke of above. Maybe the character has just reached the “end” of the first half of his journey, but for one reason or another you can’t draw attention to that fact. A subplot concluding around the same time can be a good “pivot” to the next part of an adventure.

A word of warning here, however. Sometimes concluding a subplot in a spot is the right thing to do, other times it’s the wrong thing. For example, if your reader is supposed to be in a sprint to the “top” of some climax, don’t throw a subplot conclusion partway through that sprint for them to “catch their breath.” You want them sprinting. If you absolutely must conclude it, do so in a way that they’ll be resting after the climax, not before.

There’s another use of subplots concluding too, though, outside of just pacing. Sometimes a subplot is integral to a character or their development, and a subplot can be how they achieve that growth. Meaning that in order for them to put that growth to use elsewhere, their subplot needs to conclude. So if you have a story in which the character achieves X by the end by the growth achieved in that subplot, you’ll need to pace things out so that they’ve “come into their own” by the time achievement X arrives.

As to where and when on the timeline of the story this takes place, well .. that’s up to you. Remember always that subplots don’t need to have big, grand conclusions. The “rest platform” can just be a larger than normal “rung” on that ladder. A subplot’s resolution can be as smooth as a passing breeze if you want to it, gently fading out while another fades in. Or to make way for the plot.

Think again of that tapestry and the framing colors. They can stop abruptly … or they can simple shrink and quietly fade back. A subplot can have a “soft” conclusion, making way for other things important to the main plot or even new subplot threads.

Now, one last thing because I promised we’d come back to it for a while now: Not all subplots have to conclude. It’s advisable, but there are reasons where subplots may not conclude.

For example, while a book has to reach a “climax” of some sort even if part of a series and conclude the main focus of the book, a subplot doesn’t need to resolve in one book. Sometimes a subplot can last multiple books, winding along in the background. In which case they’re naturally not going to conclude in one book. They’re still not a primary plot, but they’re not resolved like most other plots either.

Sands, sometimes they can become a primary plot. Many a book has ended with a subplot or two still unresolved, only for one of those subplots to become a primary plot point for a later book.

And sometimes, even when it is unquestionably the end for a book or a series, a subplot that’s been brought up near the end can end unconcluded because it gives the readers an idea of where those characters will be headed next, and what general mischief they might get up to. In this way, leaving the subplot unresolved and unconcluded actually becomes a tool to strengthen the ending in the mind of the audience!

Basically then, where does that leave us as writers? I hope that those reading this see subplots, or rather the various ways with which they can end them, in a new light. A subplot, and how and where it ends, really is a tool in the writer’s toolbox that can be carefully woven into the tapestry you create to keep the reader constantly moving forward with a proper pace. It’s not an easy tool to use by any means; in fact it makes heavy use of a lot of other elements Being a Better Writer talks about in order to work at all.

But deployed and used carefully, a properly concluded subplot, be it chapters, books, or even just one chapter long, can do a lot for your story.

So good luck. Now get writing.

And don’t forget the Big 300 Sale! Also, Being a Better Writer exists thanks to the aid of the following Patreon supporters: Frenetic, Pajo, Anonymous Potato, tiwake, Taylor, Jack of a Few Trades, Alamis, Seirsan, Grand General Luna, Miller, Hoopy McGee, Brown, Lightwind, and Thomas! Special thanks to them for helping keep Unusual Things ad-free and the Being a Better Writer articles coming!

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