Improve Your Subplots Writing Exercise

Step 1: Who are your novel’s most important secondary characters? Write down the names of one, two, or three.

Step 2: What is the main problem, conflict, or goal faced by each of these characters? Write those down.

Step 3: For each problem, what are the three main steps leading to the solution to that problem, the resolution of that conflict, or the attainment of that goal? Another way to ask that is: What are the three actions, events, or developments with respect to these secondary characters, that you could not possibly leave out? Write those down.

Step 4: Outline each secondary character’s story. While your protagonist is at work on the main problem, what is each character doing to solve his or her own problem? Make notes, starting now.

Follow-up work: If you are writing a first-person novel, decide how you can nevertheless work in your subplots and their steps. Make notes, starting now.

Conclusion: Can subplots and secondary characters steal the show? Of course. If they steal it effectively enough, it is just possible that you have the wrong protagonist. But that would be unusual. Most subplots are underdeveloped or nonexistent. This exercise can help give subplots a vital pulse.


This creative writing exercise came from The Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass

When you read this book, you will learn:

  • How to develop an exciting plot that sets your novel apart from the competition
  • The basics of character development and characterization
  • How to establish a sense of time and place
  • How to create conflict and tension and why it’s important

Learn more about The Breakout Novelist!