Tips for Creating Subplots in Middle Grade Novels

by Suzanne Lieurance

 If you’re writing a middle grade novel, you want to include at least one or two subplots.

Subplots in fiction are secondary storylines that run alongside the main plot, adding depth, complexity, and interest to the narrative. 


They enhance the main storyline by providing additional layers of conflict, character development, or thematic exploration. 


Subplots often intersect with the main plot at certain points, influencing or being influenced by the actions and events of the primary storyline.


For middle-grade novels targeted at kids aged 8-12, subplots can be a fantastic tool to engage young readers and keep them invested in the story. 


Here are some different types of subplots in middle-grade novels and some examples of published novels that contain these types of subplots:


Friendship Dynamics Subplot


Explore the dynamics of friendships among the main characters. 


Introduce conflicts, misunderstandings, or new friendships that challenge the established relationships. 


Subplots could revolve around resolving conflicts between friends, navigating peer pressure, or discovering the importance of loyalty and trust.


Example of a MG novel with this kind of subplot


Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney


Throughout the series, protagonist Greg Heffley navigates various friendships and social dynamics, including conflicts with his best friend Rowley and attempts to fit in with different cliques at school.


Personal Growth Subplot


Develop subplots that focus on the personal growth and development of individual characters. 


Each character could have their own arc, facing challenges or overcoming obstacles that help them grow and mature throughout the story. 


These subplots could involve facing fears, overcoming insecurities, or discovering hidden talents. 


Example of a MG novel with this kind of subplot


Wonder by R.J. Palacio


While the main plot focuses on Auggie Pullman's journey as he enters fifth grade, there are subplots involving the personal growth of supporting characters like Auggie's sister, Via, as she learns to assert her identity and navigate her own challenges.


Mystery or Puzzle Subplot


Introduce a mystery or puzzle that runs parallel to the main storyline. 


This could be a treasure hunt, a secret to uncover, or a series of clues leading to a surprising revelation. 


Subplots involving mystery and intrigue can add excitement and suspense to the narrative, keeping readers eagerly turning pages to unravel the mystery.


Example of a MG novel with this kind of subplot


The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin: 


This classic mystery novel follows a group of heirs as they compete to solve the puzzle of Samuel W. Westing's will and claim his inheritance. 


The subplot involves the characters unraveling clues and uncovering secrets about each other while trying to solve the mystery.


Family Dynamics Subplot


Explore the family dynamics of the main characters. 


Subplots could involve family secrets, sibling rivalries, or conflicts between generations. 


These subplots provide opportunities to delve into themes of family, identity, and belonging, while also deepening the characterization of the main protagonists. 


Example of a MG novel with this kind of subplot


Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson


While the main storyline focuses on the friendship between Jess and Leslie, there are subplots that delve into Jess's complex family dynamics, including his strained relationship with his father and his evolving understanding of his role within his family.


Community or School Events Subplot


Incorporate subplots centered around community or school events. 


This could include a school play, a sports competition, or a town festival. 


Subplots involving these events can bring the setting to life and provide opportunities for characters to interact with a wider range of supporting characters, adding richness and diversity to the story world. 


Example of a MG novel with this kind of subplot


Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling


Alongside the main plot of Harry's first year at Hogwarts and his quest to stop Voldemort, there are subplots involving various school events such as Quidditch matches, the annual Halloween feast, and the end-of-year House Cup ceremony.


Parallel Adventures Subplot


Introduce parallel adventures or quests that run alongside the main journey of the protagonists. 


These subplots could involve secondary characters on their own quests or facing their own challenges, which intersect with the main storyline at key moments. 


Parallel adventures add depth and complexity to the narrative, while also highlighting different perspectives and experiences within the story world.


Example of a MG novel with this kind of subplot


Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan


While Percy's quest to retrieve Zeus's stolen lightning bolt is the central focus of the novel, there are subplots involving other characters on their own quests, such as Annabeth's quest to find and retrieve the stolen Helm of Darkness.


Themes and Lessons Subplot


Develop subplots that explore specific themes or lessons relevant to the target age group. 


These could include themes such as courage, empathy, or environmental awareness. 


Subplots focused on thematic exploration allow for deeper engagement with the material and provide opportunities for readers to reflect on important values and ideas. 


Example of a MG novel with this kind of subplot


Matilda by Roald Dahl


In addition to Matilda's extraordinary abilities and her quest for acceptance and understanding, there are subplots that explore themes of friendship, courage, and the power of standing up to injustice, particularly through the character of Miss Honey.


By incorporating well-crafted subplots into your middle-grade novels, you can create rich and immersive storytelling experiences that captivate young readers and keep them eagerly engaged with the story from beginning to end.

Suzanne Lieurance is a freelance writer, the author of over 40 published books and a writing coach at

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Terry Whalin said...


Thank you for this excellent advice about how to use subplots with middle grade novels. I loved how you used well-known middle grade novels for your illustrations.

author of Book Proposals That $ell, 21 Secrets To Speed Your Success (Revised Edition) [Follow the Link for a FREE copy]

Linda Wilson said...

Suzanne, your article is very helpful in clarifying how a subplot can be woven into our stories. The subplot in the book I'm working on now fit in with one of your categories. You helped me see the subplot and its function more clearly. Thanks!

Suzanne Lieurance said...

Terry and Linda,

Glad you found my article helpful. I know many of my coaching clients find subplots puzzling. I hope this post makes subplots a bit clearer.

Happy writing!


Karen Cioffi said...

Suzanne, thanks for this helpful articles with tips and examples on including subplots in middle-grade stories. In Walking Through Walls2, the subplots fit two of your categories.

Suzanne Lieurance said...


Glad you see you're working on the sequel to Walking Through Walls. Can't wait to read it - subplots and all!


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