The Scoop on Sub-Plotting

Today, we have words of wisdom on the value of, and how to insert, subplots into your stories, from Sue McGinty, acclaimed author of the Bella Kowalski mystery series. Her Q&A format leaves no stone overturned when it comes to subplots!

Author Sue McGinty

Q. Sue, as a mystery writer myself, I am often intrigued by subplots other authors create.  What inspires you to create the subplots in your five Bella Kowalski mysteries?

A. As with the main plot, almost anything is grist for the mill: a snippet of dialog overheard in a coffee shop, a blurb in the newspaper or seen on social media or  TV. When you’re a writer your antenna is always up, alert for material. For example, a TV news conference after a brutal murder in a major city supplied me with dandy subplot involving a police commissioner and a Mafia figure for “Murder in a Safe Haven,” my fourth Bella mystery.  

Q. What’s your definition of a successful subplot? 

A. Again, like the main plot, a subplot does its job if it effects change and/or growth in the chief protagonist and perhaps a minor character as well. In the first Bella Book, “Murder in Los Lobos,” Bella takes her teenage nephew to raise and becomes a more compassionate person for helping Chris through some hairy teenage angst, including girlfriend problems and his choice of a career.  

Q. What else should your subplot provide?

A. It enriches your narrative and provides another dimension to the story. It can also provide unexpected connections, as when in “Murder in a Safe Haven” Bella discovers an unknown—and unwelcome—family connection. Novels are about connections after all, and that’s why we love them so much. In real life we have all kinds of loose ends; in a satisfying novel order is restored.

Q. How do you create a subplot?”

A. Okay, here’s an example of my thought process. Today, I’m writing this blog while cooking soup on the stove because it’s raining. At the same time I’m worried about the rain standing on the flat roof of my garage, and I’m mentally packing for a trip later this week. In other words, I’m mentally and physically multitasking. If the pot with the soup burned dry and set fire to the kitchen, I might meet a handsome fireman who could become the love of my life. Voila! Subplot 1.

Or the garage roof might fall in on my car and I might cross paths with a shady used car salesman who murdered his wife. Voila! Subplot 2. 

Or I might forget my passport, miss my flight and become involved in an international intrigue because I had to take another flight on another day. Voila! Subplot 3. 

Q. After you have the subplot, what comes next?

The next step is developing characters to inhabit it: the handsome fireman, the shady used car salesman, the Russian or middle-eastern spy with a bomb in his briefcase. Besides the characters, I have to think about their POV. Since my main narrative is usually written in first person point of view, which is limited, I often use third person to widen the scope of the story. But you can be sure, at least in my stories, the subplot (or plots) and the main plot will converge at some point before the story plays out. The plots don’t have to converge but I enjoy stories where they do. Again, it’s all about making connections. 

Q. Can you provide a checklist for developing a subplot?

A. Who is the main character in the subplot? In the fifth book in the series, “Murder at Smugglers’ Cove, Bella is a part-time Uber driver who meets a British midwife, Mrs. Willibanks, a Jane Marple-like character who become an important person in her life.  

Then I have to decide:

B. What is his/her relationship with the protagonist?

C. What inciting incident introduces the subplot?

D. Where do the plots converge?

E. Do the plots (and their characters) share an ending, or do they go their separate ways? 

Q. Can you have too many subplots?

A. Personally, I think if you have more than one or two the story becomes too complex for the average reader to follow. My goal is to provide enjoyment for readers, not give them headaches. 

Q. What if your subplot is too long?

A. You can always divide it into chunks and drop them in at strategic spots. I’ve always found this fairly easy to do. If the main plot is heavy, I strive to provide a lighter note in the subplot and I love to include animals. The fifth book in the Bella series, “Murder at Smuggler’s Cove” features a great Dane named Romeo who is very amorous.

Q. Tell us about your latest published book.

My newest book, “The Sojourner Chronicles,” is quite a departure from the Bella series. In fact, it’s not even a mystery, but could best be described as historical fiction set in 1943 in Detroit. The protagonist, thirteen-year-old protagonist Sara Grace LeBeau whose mother has died, is sent off to live with a great-aunt she’s never met when her reporter father goes off to cover the war in Europe. While not a mystery per se, the story has an element of mystery. Sara Grace soon discovers that her great-aunt has something to hide, something buried in the woman’s mysterious past. 

Q,  So if the protagonist is only 13, is this a young adult story?

Not really, though it could certainly be read by teens. I originally wrote it as a young adult book, but Jay Asher, author of “Thirteen Reasons Why” pointed out that it’s an adult book with a teenage protagonist, similar to “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Q, Does it have a subplot?

Not in the strict sense, but it does have an epilog where the reader sees Sara Grace as an adult and discovers how her childhood influenced her life choices. 

Q, Will there be more Bella Kowalski mysteries?

Definitely at least one more, but my current work WIP is an historical thriller “Murder at Area 51” that takes place in 1963. I became intrigued by Area 51 in the late 1980s when I worked for Lockheed and discovered accidentally that they did secret work for the Nevada military base.

Thank you, Sue, for so much valuable information on Subplots. It’s been a pleasure to host you today!

About Sue: Sue McGinty escaped Los Angeles on  June 17, 1994, the same day OJ Simpson took his infamous ride. Unlike OJ, Sue had a destination in mind: the Central Coast hamlet of Los Osos. Her goal: writing fiction, a whole different mindset than writing technical courses for McGraw-Hill.

She made the most of her newly-found time, publishing five Central Coast mysteries: “Murder in Los Lobos,” “Murder at Cuyamaca Beach,” “Murder in Mariposa Bay”, “Murder in a Safe Haven”, and “Murder at Smuggler’s Cove.” Her current work, an historical fiction coming-of-age story, “The Sojourner Chronicles” takes place in Detroit during WWII. 

Contact Sue at; or on Facebook: Sue McGinty

About Susan Tuttle

Susan Tuttle is a professional freelance editor, writing instructor and multi-award winning author of 21 books—6 nonfiction on writing (Write It Right), 6 suspense novels and 7 collections of award-winning short stories. She also has stories in both volumes of "Deadlines", the new anthology from the Central Coast Chapter of Sisters in Crime (SinC), Tales from a Rocky Coast, and the SLO NightWriter anthology. Under the pen name Susan Grace O'Neill, she is the author of the Journey With Jesus series: Lord, Let Me Grow (Parables) vol. 1, and Lord, Let Me Walk (Lent). She is currently working on volume #2 of her Skylark P.I. series (a PI with paranormal abilities), as well as 2 YA fantasy series. And she teaches fiction writing in both the morning and afternoon every Wednesday. Email her if you're interested in joining her class. And follow her on Twitter and FaceBook.