To end our story we have to have some form of resolution. We’ve already discussed the different sorts of endings and how we can anything from complete closure to an ambiguous end or a cliff-hanger but we’ve still got to bring all these pesky plot threads together. If you struggle with this don’t worry, a lot of writers do because keeping plots and subplots going can be a lot like the old cliché about keeping plates spinning and a lack of attention to one can bring an otherwise great story crashing down. By this I mean that we can’t do a plot half-heartedly or toss it in simply to take up some space because the reader will see the lack of development and it might make them put the book down. This is why editing is so important, it allows us to toss things into the story and play around to see what works and what doesn’t can refine it, so if our plots seem clunky to begin with it doesn’t matter.
Another reason that we need to be selective with our plotting is that the majority of plots and subplots need some kind of pay off. As I’ve said before we don’t need to tie all our plots off in neat little bows but plots that don’t tie off shouldn’t feel like they have to. For instance, if Jane Austen hadn’t resolved the Jane and Bingly plot line in Pride and Prejudice the book wouldn’t have worked because the reader was so invested in these two characters getting together by the end. It doesn’t mean she had to have them get married but she would’ve needed to answer why they didn’t. Whereas the subplot about Mr Collins and Charlotte was essentially resolved when Lizzie went to visit them and saw their arrangement. The reader can assume they didn’t live Happily Ever After but they might not have exactly been miserable because they both got what they wanted; Charlotte got the security of marriage and Mr Collins got a respectable wife. In this way the plot is resolved without explicitly stating what happened to them.
Bringing all the plots together can be the difficult bit. We may tie them up one after the other doing something such as having the epic show down with the villain then two characters who were bickering before talk out their differences and, finally, they all have a party to celebrate (Star Wars possibly?). Alternatively we may have several plots resolved at once, if we stick with epic show downs, we may have several characters meet their doom thus resolving their plot lines and the others ride off into the sunset. There are too many variants in-between to list them all but which one you choose depends largely on the type of ending you’re aiming for and the speed.
Plot is closely related to the speed of narrative because part of what creates pace is the speed at which we move through the plot. So, if you want a fast ending then we generally use grouped resolutions. Often in these sorts of endings there are either fewer subplots or many, if not all, of the subplots connect back to the main plot. Connecting the subplots back means that by resolving the main plot we resolve multiple subplots at once. Conspiracy thrillers often have many subplot threads but these threads are usually concluded by solving the main conspiracy.
If we want a slower ending then we’re more likely to tie off plots individually and in novels with slower endings the plots aren’t always connect so closely to the main plot. In these instances, but not always, the main plot resolution allows for the subplots to be resolved or resolving some of the subplots allows the main plot to resolve. An example would be in romance stories where there is a subplot that creates an impediment to the couple getting together but resolving it allows them to get their happily ever after.
This might make it sound like the subplots in this context are closely linked to the main plot and they are. What I mean by saying they have slightly more distance from the main plot is that while they affect the main plot and are important to it we’re unlikely to solve them all with one event. In the conspiracy thriller the subplots are often red herrings, or narrative cul-de-sacs to find information, or other things that build into the villain’s grand scheme. However, we catch the villain and these subplots are usually resolved by the villain no longer being there to keep them going.
When subplots are more independent from the plot there isn’t usually a single piece that can be removed to resolve them all. For example, in Lord of the Rings Aragon and Arwen’s marriage is dependent on Aragon taking the throne of Gondor which becomes dependent on defeating Sauron. However, defeating Sauron enables, this it doesn’t cause it. Once Sauron is defeated the reader knows, even if they don’t see it, that there has to be a wedding and a crowning after the fact to resolve that subplot. On the other hand the armies of Mordor are defeated in one blow by the destruction of The Ring which kills Sauron and destroys Mordor. One action in the main plot immediately resolves this subplot.
I can’t tell you which method to use to resolve your plots because it largely depends upon the type of ending you think your story needs and how long you feel it needs to be. We could start decreeing which type of ending is required based on genre but this would be wrong because it takes away the room for innovation. There is no reason you couldn’t write a love story with a thriller style ending or a thriller with a longer ending, it is up to you to experiment and find what you feel your story needs.