Writing Tip of the Week: Subplots – Part Two

Last time, we began to explore what a subplot is, its purpose, and how they can be used to enhance the main story.  Today, we’ll continue that discussion with examples from Jurassic Park.

Let’s keep going!

Subplots have ARCS

A subplot should be considered a mini-story within the main story, with its own beginning, middle, and end. Often, subplots might be introduced in a film, but they lack a conclusion for one reason or another.  Ensure that your subplots have an end-point and that their conclusion ties into the main story.

In Jurassic Park, Dr. Grant’s character-driven subplot has a definite arc.  From him making it clear at the dig site that he has no patience for kids and then not wanting anything to go in the same SUV as Lex and Tim when he first meets them.  

Grant becomes their savior and protector when things go to hell on the island, even telling a panicked Lex that he’s not gonna leave her and her brother.  He then becomes a father figure to them, educating them about the dinosaurs as they hike back to safety.  By the film’s end, Grant no longer seems to have any aversion to kids and seems rather comfortable around them.

With Nedry, his story-driven subplot arc is shorter but still impactful.  His greed leads him to steal the embryos from the island to give to Nedry.  His plans are complicated by a storm that hits the island, making it harder for him to get to the boat in time to get away.  He rigs the security, camera, and power systems to assist in his theft. 

Still, his actions result in dinosaurs getting loose.  As he escapes to the East Dock, he skids off the road, runs into a “playful” Dilophosaurus, and meets his fate; the embryos are lost under a pile of mud.   

Both subplots have a clear beginning, middle, and end.  If we never saw Nedry’s fate but found out about it in passing during The Lost World, that would not have been a satisfying conclusion to that subplot.  

Or, if Grant had left on a separate helicopter from Lex and Tim, we wouldn’t have been given a conclusion that indicates that his thoughts about kids have now changed for the better.

Subplots END

This seems logical, but sometimes if there are too many story threads, some can get lost, and their endings never happen.  The reader or viewer can be left with questions about what happened or even frustrated that a subplot was introduced and never finished.  

As you revise your manuscript or screenplay, please keep track of your subplots and make sure they conclude at some point.  Their endings should have some impact or meaning to the main story, and if they don’t, they aren’t necessary to include.

Can a subplot begin before or end after the main story?  Yes.  Grant’s subplot begins before he and Ellie are invited to the island and ends after they leave.  But a subplot shouldn’t drag on much longer past the ending of the main story.

Final Thoughts

A subplot’s purpose is to enhance the main plot by being character-driven or story-driven.  Subplots should have a definite arc, with a beginning, middle, and end, and a subplot must link to the main story.

What are some subplots in novels, TV shows, or movies that you’ve noticed lack connection to the main story or have no conclusion?  Leave a comment and let me know!

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Tip of the Week: Subplots – Part One

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 ENHANCE

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!

The Value of Set-ups and Pay-offs

“If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.”                         – Anton Chekhov

Set-ups and pay-offs are invaluable tools that you can use in a variety of ways in your writing.  It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a novel, a screenplay, a play, a TV script, or a short film, the use of set-ups and pay-offs can help add suspense and increase tension in your writing.

The quote above, attributed to playwright Anton Chekhov makes the pint clear: if you introduce it as important, you should use it by the story’s end.  Think about all the movie, TV shows, plays, and novels you’ve read where some weapon, potion, device, or other object or person is introduced or mentioned.  The writer has now piqued your interest and you keep reading or watching to see how the item or person is utilized later in the story.

If you give Captain America his shield, he better use it at some point in the story.  If Lex Luthor has Kryptonite and knows it can weaken Superman, he better darn well try and use it against him to show its power.  If Q gives James Bond gadgets, weapons, and a car at the beginning of his mission, we better see all of those things in action throughout the story.

It’s what we as an audience subconsciously expect: if you show or tell us about it, it better be used later.

The Melissa McCarthy movie, Spy, does an excellent job setting up items in the first act that are later used effectively and comedically throughout the film.

How disappointing is it when something is brought up once in a story and you’re excited to see what the writer does with it later and it never comes up again.  If you as the writer take the time to include it in the work, respect your reader and give them the pay-off they deserve.

Set-ups and pay-offs aren’t just for objects, of course, it’s also the basis of a lot of comedy. Sitcoms use this method of joke telling with one character saying a “straight line” (the set-up) to one character and the other replying with a one-liner (the pay-off) that gets the laugh.  Watch any multi-camera sitcom with a studio audience (Big Bang Theory, Married …with Children, I Love Lucy) and this is the basic structure of the majority of jokes. Why?  Because it works.

A more nuanced use of the set-up/pay-off structure is the HBO series, Curb Your Enthusiasm.  Here is a show that will set up jokes at the beginning of the episode or the beginning of the season and pay them off by the end of either.  It’s brilliant storytelling that uses the same structure in a more evolved way.

One of my favorite novels that shows this structure at work is Stephen King’s Needful Things.  King weaves dozens of threads throughout the story with items and events that are set-up early in the novel only to be paid-off brilliantly by the novel’s end. It’s also a really great read!

It should be noted that you can have multiple moments over the course of your story with set-ups and pay-offs. Don’t think they all have to be crammed into the first act.  Spread them out in order to keep the audience engaged and looking for how things will be utilized later.

What are some examples you have of great set-ups and pay-offs in films, plays, TV shows, or books? Leave a comment and let me know!