| Don’t Write Alone
Free Write First Comes Love, Then Comes the Subplot
For our Romance Week series, novelist Sonya Lalli offers a writing exercise on how to strengthen the romantic subplots in your work.
Subplots are a time-tested way to elevate your romance novel. These secondary storylines, which will likely involve one or both of your main characters, create obstacles they must fight to overcome, or help with your story’s pacing by adding comedy, tension, or reprieves. They can force your protagonists to make difficult choices and confront their pasts, and even add nuance by advancing your story’s overall themes or tropes.
Ideally, each of your subplots will serve multiple functions, adding depth without complicating or taking away from your main romance plot. Whether you’re at the beginning, middle, or end of writing your romance novel—or stuck somewhere in revisions—defining and clarifying your subplots can be a great way to suss out where your manuscript could use a little work.
Before jumping into the exercise, let’s take a look at two examples from my latest novel, A Holly Jolly Diwali, in which “good Indian girl” Niki falls in love with carefree musician Sam during a whirlwind trip to Mumbai. I have summarized the two subplots below:
“The Love Triangle”
Niki briefly dates someone else at the behest of her parents. Having another viable romantic interest forces her to make a choice, which adds to her character development and creates tension in the main romance plot. Moreover, this subplot also helps with the novel’s overall pacing, as the love triangle scenes intersperse a bit of comedy with more serious or emotional scenes.
“Big Sister Problems”
Niki’s falling out with her older sister, Jasmine, gives readers insight into why Niki has always chosen to be the “good Indian girl.” It also creates tension in the main romance plot, as readers are left to wonder if Niki will once again do the responsible thing and restrict her relationship with Sam to a vacation romance. Finally, this subplot explores one of the book’s overall themes: societal and familial expectations on South Asian women.
1. Make a list of your subplots and write down their respective narrative arcs (i.e., the beginning, middle, and end.)
2. Review your list of subplots. For each one, ask yourself how it serves the following purposes:
a. Your main romance plot
b. The character development of one or both of your protagonists
c. Any overall themes or tropes in your story
3. If you’re having trouble coming up with answers to questions one and two, then maybe there isn’t enough meat to your story. Brainstorm five to ten new subplots that could add depth to your protagonists’ romance, their character development, and/or speak to themes or tropes. Do any of them call out to you and merit further consideration?
4. Conversely, perhaps the exercise has made you wonder if your subplots are overly complicated, lack cohesion, or could benefit from retooling. What would happen if you cut or streamlined one of them? Would it change the heart of your story? Brainstorm five to ten different editorial paths you could take to trim your subplots and consider if any of them are worth pursuing.
Have fun with this exercise, and remember, subplots should always serve your main characters and their love story. Don’t be afraid to kill a few darlings. You never know what else you’ll come up with.