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.
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.
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!
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!
Over the past two articles, we discussed what goes into creating the opening of your story.
Today, we’ll start to look at the Middle of the story. You can call it Act Two or even as some writers call it: The Muddle. This is where your hero’s path toward their goal should become increasingly challenging, where they begin to grow and change as a character, and the story continues to create conflicts for the main character.
The Stage Is Set
The Who, What, Where, When, and Why have all been established and your main character and their helpers have been launched from their ordinary existence into a new and challenging adventure. Your main character has a stated goal, and forces prevent them from quickly achieving what they want.
Once they cross over the threshold of Turning Point One, they have no entered a new phase of their journey. They may have to reassess how they are going about achieving their goal. They may realize that they can’t do things on their own and need some help. Maybe the antagonist has taken this moment to up the stakes just a little more, which only motivates the hero to keep going despite the odds.
At this point, you as a writer should know your main character fairly well. What they are willing to do and not do. How far they will go to get what they want. What decisions they will make – good or bad – that will impact them reaching their goal.
And The Hits Keep on Comin’
Obstacles. Lots of obstacles. The Middle of the story needs to present challenges and problems that make the hero challenge who they are and make them work to reach their goal. Think of this section of the story as the main obstacle course for your characters. They have to do things that they may not want to do, may not like, and may have to go outside their comfort zone to get to the next level to get one step closer to their goal.
Reality shows like American Ninja Warrior, Wipeout, and Holey Moley are examples of individuals having to traverse seemingly impossible odds to reach the intended goal and get the prize. Essentially, you are sending your characters through a similar maze filled with hazards, hits, and dangers that they must overcome in one way or another.
It’s okay for them to fail and have setbacks. In fact, that makes your hero more human if they don’t always get what they need or want on the first try. Creating a flawed character who doesn’t give up creates empathy and relatability between the character and the audience.
The Middle is where the bulk of the character arc takes place, mainly since it’s also where the bulk of the story happens. Your main character started out one way when we first met them at the beginning of the story, but now as they face new odds and problems, we should begin to see them develop and grow.
A stagnant and unchanging character lacks relatability. If your character experiences some traumatic event that launches them into the story and has zero effect on them, it’s hard to relate to that character. Now, suppose they are repressing their anger, sadness, or despair, affecting their judgment and ability to problem-solve. This creates an internal conflict that will eventually manifest itself since they will have to overcome those things in order to reach their goal by the end of the story.
Think of Mando’s arc in season one of The Mandalorian. How does he change when he meets and interacts with The Child for the first time? What choices does he make that affect his character arc throughout the season? How do his choices and changes affect the story?
Think about how the events in Jurassic Park affect Alan Grant’s relationships with and views on children. How do his interactions and perspectives change from the start of the film to the finale?
Keep Things in Motion
A story should be in constant motion. Each scene or chapter leading into the next. The protagonist should always be doing something. They should always be active in what’s going on. It is their story, after all.
As you develop the Middle, think about how to map out the story so events keep moving forward. That goal is still out there. The antagonist still exists to prevent the protagonist from reaching their goal. How can you keep your hero moving toward their goal while hitting them with problems that prevent them from reaching it?
Each scene or chapter should give the audience a new piece of the puzzle. Some new information that keeps them reading or watching. The hero is handed a note and reads it. What does it say? We don’t find out until several chapters or scenes later, but our curiosity has been piqued.
Keep the audience interested, and they’ll stay to find out what happens next.
During this time in the story, it can be easy to slowly go off course and get knee-deep in subplots or tangents. And while subplots are acceptable, it’s important not to lose sight of the real reason we’re in this story: to watch the hero go after their goal in the face of opposition.
Work through their story first. If you want to go back and add a subplot that ties into the main story afterward, go for it. Your main goal here is to develop the main character’s arc and their related story arc. It can be very tempting to go and take a detour with the main character’s best friend and see what shenanigans they’ll get themselves into. But unless that directly impacts the main story, hold off and see if that side trip is really necessary.
Think about movies you’ve seen where subplots pop up and then go nowhere, or they have no relation to the main story and just seem to be there to eat away screen time. Avoid these types of subplots and make sure that all roads point back to the hero.
In The Middle of Things
As I said before, the Middle is the longest part of any story. It can be almost an hour of what you see on the screen (and if it’s a long movie, even more). At the halfway point, there’s something known as the Mid-Point Sequence. The outcome affects what the hero does moving forward.
This is a big moment for the hero. After everything they’ve been through and worked through, things seem to be going their way for the most part. They still haven’t reached their goal, but now they are getting a better idea of how to get there.
This is also known as The Point of No Return. Once we get past the Mid-Point of the Middle, it’s now only a matter of time before the protagonist has to confront their antagonist head-on (literally or figuratively).
In Legally Blonde, the Mid-Point of the Middle comes when Elle gets chosen Callahan’s law internship. This is a big moment for Elle since she has been working to prove herself a viable Harvard law school student and future lawyer. Worth noting is that her antagonist, Warner, was also chosen along with his fiancée, Vivian (Selma Blair). I mention Vivian since she is an extension of the antagonist, and therefore can cause problems and issues for Elle on his behalf.
The sequence then leads to Elle, Warner, and Vivian arriving at the internship and finding out about the case they will be assisting on.
Elle is at the Point of No Return. She can’t back out now, and she can’t allow herself to fail without a fight.
Check out the clip below:
In two weeks, we’ll explore the second half of the Middle as we charge toward the End and the Climax of the story!
Jurassic Park. Disclosure. Rising Sun. The Andromeda Strain. Congo. The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Next. These are just a few of the many novels author Michael Crichton has written. Along with fictional books, Crichton has written several non-fiction works, created the TV series ER, and wrote the screenplays for Jurassic Park, Twister, and other films.
He was a brilliant and prolific writer. In 1993, he had the number one film (Jurassic Park), number one series (ER), and number one bestseller (Disclosure) in the nation. His passion for technology, science, and politics resonates in each of his works.
Sadly, Crichton passed away in 2008, but works and influence on pop culture will always be felt.
Below are some great interviews Crichton did over the years talking about his work and his process. I am aware that Charlie Rose is on the outs in society right now, but most interviews Crichton did in the 90s were on his show.