The subplot. Most stories have at least one, and others have several. Whether it’s known as a subplot or a B-story, these can help enhance your narrative, add depth to your characters, or give the reader a breather when things get too intense in the main story.
Let’s talk about subplots!
What is a Subplot?
A subplot is a secondary story connected to the main story, either directly or indirectly. It can include the main character, or it can be related to a side character whose actions in the subplot will affect the main story at some point.
As stated in the intro, there can be more than one, but all should wind up intersecting with the main story at some point. Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm do this masterfully, weaving multiple storylines into the main one by the end of the episode.
In Jurassic Park (which I will use for my examples in this post), we are introduced to two subplots early in the film: Dr. Grant’s dislike of children; and Dennis Nedry’s deal with Dodgson to steal the dinosaur embryos.
Let’s talk about the qualities of a subplot using these examples.
Subplots have PURPOSE
You ever watch a movie where a subplot is introduced that leads absolutely nowhere? There doesn’t seem to be any reason for it to exist other than to eat up time. A compelling subplot has a reason to exist. It can be either character-driven or story-driven, but by the end, it’s clear why it was part of the story.
Dr. Grant’s dislike of children is a character-driven subplot. We are shown this side of Grant early, so when he meets Lex and Tim on the island, we already know his opinions about kids, which gives us a baseline for character growth.
Nedry being paid to steal the embryos is a story-driven subplot. His actions in getting the embryos – shutting off power and fences – lead to the T-Rex escape that catapults the plot of the film forward.
Subplots need to add something to the overall story. They are only useful if they impact something happening in the main story. A subplot needs to give us insight into who a character is, where the story might lead, or emphasize one of the story’s themes.
Dr. Grant’s character-driven subplot enhances his character as he’s placed in situations where he has to rescue Lex and Tim, save Tim’s life, and rely on Lex to reboot the park’s security system. His views on kids evolve as the story unfolds through the film’s final moments, where Lex and Tim are asleep next to him in the helicopter.
Likewise, Nedry’s story-driven subplot enhances the narrative by causing the chaos that leads to dinosaurs escaping their paddocks and roaming free around the island. Since Nedry has locked everyone out of the system, the only solution is for the power to be shut off entirely and the system rebooted, which then causes the Raptors to escape. All of Nedry’s actions help to move the story forward.
But Wait, There’s More!
Next time, we’ll explore a couple more subplot characteristics. See you then!
What’s your favorite subplot from a movie or TV show? Leave a comment and let me know!