Amber Morn
Brandilyn Collins

Brandilyn Collins is a best-selling novelist known for her trademark Seatbelt Suspense™. These harrowing crime thrillers have earned her the tagline “Don’t forget to b r e a t h e …®”. She writes for Zondervan, the Christian division of HarperCollins Publishers, and is currently at work on her 19th book. Her first, A Question of Innocence, was a true crime published by Avon in 1995 and landed her on local and national TV and radio, including the Phil Donahue and Leeza talk shows. She’s also known for her distinctive book on fiction-writing techniques, Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors (John Wiley & Sons), and often teaches at writers conferences.
Visit her blog at Forensics and Faith, and her website at Brandilyn to read the first chapters of all her books.


Are your subplots as effective as your main plot? Often a novel can be enhanced by an effective secondary plot or two. Here are a few pointers:

1. Allow the subplot to grow naturally out of your characters’ (particularly the protagonist’s) personal lives. This might be a romantic subplot. Or a plot involving a problem that the character continually faces. For example, in my Hidden Faces suspense series, Annie’s son, Stephen, provides a dramatic subplot in the first three books. He’s been a rebellious kid and is falling more and more into drug use. As Annie faces her struggles with a murder case, working as a forensic artist, she’s continually pulled away to deal with Stephen’s problems. This leads to a higher level of tension in Annie’s life—and therefore in the novel.

In many novels, particularly suspense, tension arises from that corkscrew effect of things in the protagonist’s life turning tighter and tighter. A messed-up kid, or some other relationship, a physical handicap or illness, a loss—any of these things can help make things difficult for the protagonist. With a good subplot going, you can let the main suspense plot hang (after creating a strong hook, of course) and focus on the growing difficulties coming from these other issues in the character’s life.

2. A good subplot dovetails into the main plot. I’ve read books with personal issue subplots that never affect the main plot at all. It’s just this side thing going on in the character’s life. I come away from those books feeling as if the author couldn’t think of a main plot deep enough to fill the pages, so this subplot had to be tacked on. Just doesn’t work for me. The plots may start out separately, but they should begin to affect each other. And toward the end of the novel, the crisis/climax of your subplot should help drive and deepen the crisis/climax of your main plot.

3. A subtle approach to bringing the two plots together could be called the “Finite Energy” technique. As problems in a protagonist’s personal life weigh her down and sap her energy, she’s left with less vitality to fight in the main plot. The added vulnerability and exhaustion can lead her to overlook an obvious clue, tempt her to give up, and in general push her closer to the brink. And of course, in my genre of suspense, it’s all about torturing your protagonist. She’s got to end up at the brink, or the reader’s not likely to feel satisfied. (Suspense readers are a sadistic lot.)

4. A second way of bringing subplot and main plot together could be called “Converging Streams.” This is the approach I used in the Hidden Faces books. Some examples (general enough not to give away the story): In Brink of Death, (book 1), Annie makes a choice of where to go because of her son’s issues. That choice places her in a location in which she ends up doing something in regard to the main suspense plot. In Stain of Guilt (book 2),

Stephen’s choices directly affect what happens to his mother in the main plot. In Dead of Night (book 3), there is a real clashing of the main serial killer plot and the son’s subplot. The foundation for that ultimate clash is set up right in the beginning of the book. The very short prologue deals with the serial killer main plot. Chapter 1 deals with the son’s subplot. Chapter 2 goes back to the main plot. I would not have appointed such an important chapter—chapter 1—to deal with a subplot without a strong reason. And even as chapter 1 deals with the subplot, Annie’s reactions and choices are largely fueled by what’s going on in the main plot.

You can also create subplots based on secondary characters. These, too, should end up affecting the protagonist and the main plot in some way. Otherwise they’re going to feel tacked on.

A character is the sum of his experiences, just as a real person is. So even as your character faces a major dangerous crisis in his life, all these surrounding, smaller things are still happening. He may be fighting with a roommate, he may be about to lose his job. The possibilities are endless. Bottom line, a good subplot helps to characterize your protagonist and create him into a more three-dimensional person.