When Your Subplot Takes Over

Steve Urkel has taken over my story.

Well, not actually. Allow me to explain.

Family Matters was a sitcom about the trials and tribulations of the Winslow family. One day, a supporting character in the form of nerdy neighbour Steve Urkel made his first appearance. He kept showing up. Then suddenly, he became the main character of the show. He wasn’t even a member of the Winslow family. But now he’s arguably the most memorable thing about Family Matters.

This is an example of a story where a supporting character outshone the main character (presumably family patriarch Carl Winslow), eventually taking over the story and becoming the star. The original premise of the TV show was no more; it was all about Urkel. And now I’m concerned that the supporting narrative, or subplot, or B story, in my work in progress, is at risk of being ‘Steve Urkeled’.

In my murder mystery, The Princess Murders, the main plotline follows the main character, Sylvie, a private investigator trying to solve the murder of her best friend, Bianca. Running parallel is a subplot involving Sylvie’s other investigation into the dodgy dealings of a local school teacher, Leeder. Although seemingly unrelated, these two plotlines come together at the climax to reveal they’ve been linked all along. The solution to the B story (Leeder) mystery is linked to the solution to the A story mystery (Bianca’s murder).

But as I wrote the first draft, quite freely and trying not to overthink things, Leeder kept showing up. Okay, I thought. He can stay there for now and I’ll just edit him out in my rewrites. But as I’m now working through, scene by scene, I don’t know what to cut. Is it because A and B are so intrinsically linked that I can’t separate them, or is it that Leeder is just like pesky Steve Urkel, and won’t leave the story alone?

The B story has to be apparent enough so the reader understand what’s going on, but it should be balanced throughout the story so that it adds to the A story without overwhelming it. Jordan McCollum has written a seven-part blog series on subplots that is well worth checking out.

Leeder is a sneaky character so it’s not surprising that he keeps trying to sneak into my story. But the main narrative is Sylvie trying to solve the murder of her best friend. Even though the B story is important to the A story, I know I’ve got to pare it back and focus on what The Princess Murders is really about. So, I’ve developed a checklist to help me determine which scenes need to be cut/edited/rewritten.

  • Does this scene involving the B story affect the main character? Could it be achieved another way?
  • Does this scene raise the stakes and increase tension and suspense? (Remembering this is a mystery novel, after all).
  • Do I need to include this much information or can I trust the reader to draw the right conclusions?
  • Will the main character go on to do things in the main plot without this B story scene?

The best advice comes from K.M. Weiland at Helping Writers Become Authors, who states:

“There are no subplots, just plots. As such, your goal is to integrate your subplot ideas into your main plot so seamlessly they’re inextricable. Although you will probably need to create certain scenes that revolve entirely around subplot ideas, it’s best if you can weave them into your main plotline’s concerns as much as possible.”

With enough thought, time and effort, I should be able to successfully de-Urkelise my story and re-focus on the main plotline (and definitely avoid any scenes where Leeder pops up and asks “Did I do that?”)



10 thoughts on “When Your Subplot Takes Over

  1. Wow, this is fascinating to me. I love how stories almost write themselves sometimes, and how characters want to be heard. I’m going to play devil’s advocate here (or should I say, Leeder’s advocate?!) and ask – is there something about Leeder that you can’t let go? Does he have some characteristic that is lacking in your protagonist? Has his storyline become in some way more compelling to you and if so, why? (I have no idea – just throwing out questions here!)
    For some reason, this character wants to be in your story and it sounds like you want to get the balance right so he doesn’t dominate, which is fair enough, but he really sounds intriguing, too!
    This is why I love writing!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Leeder is a little bit of a devil, so that’s an accurate description. Your comments have made me have a good think about Leeder and I’m considering that the problem may be that he’s a bit two-dimensional at the moment – only dark, no light – and even though he’s a supporting character, I think I need to know what his motivation is and the reasons behind why he is doing what he is doing. I think he wants to surprise me, but I’m not sure what he’s got up his sleeves just yet.
      Thanks so much for your thoughtful and insightful comments!


  2. I have only had the problem with creatures (dragons) taking over my story – not people! A good trick if you are not sure is to write a summary of the story – brainstorming different options as you go – different mixes of plot/sub plot, then leave it a bit to settle and see what feels right to you. I often find when I write summaries that new ideas of how to fit things together come to me.

    Good luck!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You can never have too many dragons, though, surely? I’m sure that someone gave me some writing advice once, which was if your story gets to a point where it’s a bit lacklustre, the solution is to add dragons.
      Leeder could be the metaphorical dragon of my story.
      I have written a summary but it’s becoming clear to me that it’s not working. I will need to revisit it and think again. Thanks for your advice, Elizabeth!


  3. Oh the Steve Urkel days!! Haha love this post and your link to that quirky neighbour who took over the series 🙂 Best of luck with trimming back Leeder and making your story shine. It sounds very interesting so I can’t wait to hear more about it!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Steve Urkel 😆. I love that guy! Great tie-in to subplots taking over.
    I must admit, I’m still shaky on the whole sub-plot thing. Just hoping it’s going to sort itself out probably isn’t the best strategy for me to take! Thanks for the advice and links to other sites.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Marie! I usually try and link to other sites when I’m giving “writing advice” (haha) in my blog posts as I don’t feel qualified to be giving such “writing advice”. The links are really helpful – I definitely recommend them!

      Liked by 1 person

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