The Units of Story: The Subplot

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Subplot is the next level up from Act in the long form story.

Subplots are the added attractions for a Story and are best used to amplify the theme/controlling idea more aggressively or to counterbalance the global story with irony.

A quick example would be the love story in The Sound of Music between Liesl and her Austrian Messenger boy Rolfe who ends up joining the Nazi Party. While the introduction of the young love is wonderfully engaging in the form of the song “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” in the beginning hook of the story, by the end of the film that delightful innocence has been corrupted by the Nazis. This subplot would be an example of amplifying the theme…Only a family that sticks together can defeat Tyranny.

Deciding when and where you need to employ a particular subplot is dependent upon the global story you are trying to tell. Love Story subplots aid just about all of the external content genres (War, Crime, Thriller, Performance, etc.).

And an action subplot in a global Maturation/Coming of Age story (like Saturday Night Fever’s gang fight subplot) can raise the temperature of a Global Internal content genre. If Tony Manero (played by John Travolta) was never physically threatened by his neighborhood, only spiritually threatened, I doubt his departure to Manhattan in the final scene would have much resonance.

Subplots have all of the same things that all units of story have (inciting incidents, progressive complications, crisis, climax and resolution). But unlike the Global Story requirement that all of the big moments be on stage—witnessed by the reader/viewer—subplot’s critical scenes (Crisis, Climax and Resolution) often, by necessity, occur offstage. They can be announced or implied as having occurred off stage in dialogue to dynamically turn scenes.  The details of these reported off stage events are often left mysterious, to be filled in by the reader/viewer’s mind.

In the Chinatown example from the previous post on the Act, the scenes from the Noah Cross subplot of his orchestrating the hiring of Jake Gittes to find his “granddaughter” are not on the page at all. The reader/viewer only discovers this subplot with the revelation close to the very end of the movie that the woman who was hired to portray Evelyn Mulray (the Diane Ladd character) at the beginning of the movie has been murdered. Whoever the bad guy is must have hired her and then when Gittes tracked her down, had her murdered.

For another example, let’s go back to William Goldman’s screenplay adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery, you’ll recall that there is a crime story subplot in addition to the abduction thriller global story.

In the movie, Richard Farnsworth plays Buster, the local Sheriff of the Colorado town where writer Paul Sheldon crashes his car. Throughout the film, we see small snippets of Buster gathering information about the disappearance of Sheldon but we don’t see all of the crime story business on stage.

Goldman trusts that the viewer will piece together all of what Buster is up to.  He understands that showing all of the investigation steps would not only slog down the pace of the global story, it would disrespect the audience’s intelligence. The audience already knows how a crime investigation ensues from having read and/or watched thousands of hours of crime fiction. So Goldman wisely lets the viewer do that work for him.

Instead he uses the climactic moment of his subplot crime story…the discovery of the identity of the criminal…as a way to progressively complicate the climactic Act of his global thriller story.

Obviously the climax of his subplot (being it crime and external and active) is the perfect choice to put on stage. It moves his last Act of the global thriller story to the ultimate high. Just when we think someone is going to help Paul Sheldon…Buster shows up at Annie Wilke’s house just about certain that she’s up to no good…the viewer’s hopes are dashed.

When Annie Wilkes kills Buster, all hope the viewer has that a third party will save Paul Sheldon is lost. The final confrontation between the antagonist (Annie) and the victim (Paul) is now one on one. The only person who can save Paul….is Paul. And his chances of doing so physically are impossible. The only way he’ll be able to do it is by using his mind.

Misery has one of the best “hero at the mercy of the villain” scenes ever written. The way Sheldon gets out of the jam is by using Annie’s cheesy love of romance against her.

Let’s go back to the Love Story as it is the most often used genre for subplots. The reason it is used so often is that it’s ideal to soften a particularly violent or horrific global story (War, Horror, Thriller).

For example, all Love Stories must have the obligatory “Lovers’ Kiss” scene which is the critical moment of electricity that tells the characters that their lives will be meaningless in the absence of the other. After the Kiss, there is no going back to the life they enjoyed or endured before meeting.

Now if your global plot is a Love Story, then this obligatory scene (of course that does not mean that the way you write this scene is conventional or derivative) must be ON STAGE. That is, it must be an active scene in which the viewers/readers “watch” the two lovers kiss. [The novel Atonement by Ian McEwan and its film adaptation by Christopher Hampton both had the lovers kiss directly on stage. In this case, the war story serves as subplot to the global love story.]

But, if you are using Love Story as a subplot to another global genre, like a Thriller, you may or may not have to put the “Lovers Kiss” obligatory scene on stage. For example, in Die Hard we know that John McClain, the lead character played by Bruce Willis, and his wife have already had their Lovers Kiss scene before the movie has even begun. The Love Story subplot supports the action…the only reason McClain is in the building in the first place is to win back the love of his life. We know that these two people are meant to be together and that Willis will do anything to get Bonnie Bedelia to invite him back to their house for Christmas. If it means having to stop a group of terrorist/criminals to prove his love to her, so be it.

We don’t need the backstory Lover’s Kiss scene in the movie, because the very circumstances of the Thriller’s set up have already done that work. This is an example of a subplot that picks up a story in the middle of things. And that is absolutely fine to do for a subplot…and global plot too. Preferable even.

Whether or not to put obligatory/conventional scenes on stage for subplots is a very difficult decision. Putting then in just to show that you know that they are required isn’t a big enough reason to do so.

Often, writers use an obligatory scene from a subplot as a way to pay off a major global Story change. That is, they present what the reader will initially believe is a scene they’ve seen a million times before and turn it such that the climax actually reveals a huge change in the global story. The payoff of the crime subplot in Misery is a prime example of that.  We expect the criminal to be brought to justice in a conventional crime story.  Not only does that not happen, but the lead investigator is suddenly killed.

I suggest that the writer put all of his energy crafting the global plot first before making decisions about where and when to pay off the subplots. Oftentimes, the writer unconsciously drops in subplot while concentrating on the global story. Pay attention to these ideas as they are usually spot on!

It’s been my experience that subplots are usually the work of the writer’s unconscious.  They somehow find themselves woven perfectly into a global story without the writer even realizing they’ve done so. You can really drive yourself crazy over thinking the choices you’ve made with your subplots.  I suggest you don’t go overboard with subplot analysis unless you really have to.

Also, you need to remember that by Global Story Climax, you need to have paid off all of the plots—the global and the subplots. To do so, obviously is not easy. But when it’s done well, like in Misery, the payoffs are far more than the sum of their parts.

If you are having difficulty after you’ve gone through your first draft and have found that the climax of the global story is just not mind-blowing…take a deep breath. Before you dump the whole global baby out with the bathwater, go back and look at your subplots. You may have omitted a key scene (left it off stage) in one of the subplots and failed to pay it off. That could be the big problem at the end of your story. The solution to that problem is to figure out a way to combine the subplot climax and resolution with the climax and resolution of your global story.

In The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris uses multiple love stories as subplots in his global thriller–the Crawford/Bella love story, the buddy friendship love story between Starling and Ardelia Mapp, the father/daughter dynamic between Crawford/Starling, the budding romance between Starling and the scientist Pilcher at the Smithsonian, and of course the strange sadomasochistic May/December thing between Starling/Lecter.

Harris did not load in so much love story by accident. He knew that to create killers like Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter and put their gruesome actions on stage, he needed to counterbalance the story with the opposite of their contempt for humanity…love for it.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.


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Shawn Coyne

SHAWN COYNE created, developed, and expanded the story analysis and problem-solving methodology The Story Grid throughout his quarter-century-plus book publishing career. A seasoned story editor, book publisher and ghostwriter, Coyne has also co-authored The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, The Cowboys, the ’70s and the Fight For America’s Soul with Chad Millman and Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon’s Quest to Out-Think Fear with Mark McLaughlin, M.D. With his friend and editorial client Steven Pressfield, Coyne runs Black Irish Entertainment LLC, publisher of the cult classic book The War of Art. With his friend and editorial client Tim Grahl, Coyne oversees the Story Grid Universe, LLC, which includes Story Grid University and Story Grid Publishing.