If you’ve been reading my blog for quite a while, you may remember how I used to publish posts under the heading “The Writing Files”. While I did abandon these quite a while ago, I am now resuming them as I delve even deeper into the world of writing. Though I am by no means extremely experienced in the field, I will attempt to give advice or to write on the topic to the best of my ability.
I was recently reading a book from the library and I noticed something rather interesting. I found myself longing not to read about the main character’s main story, but about their subplot of trying to train a dog. Why, you may ask? The problem lay in the fact that the main plot had very little to with the subplot. This same weekend, I watched a video from the Youtuber, Lessons From the Screenplay. His video essay on subplots using Hidden Figures as an example, caused me to realize where the problem lay with the book I was reading. Here is his conclusion in rough form:
“If a conclusion doesn’t thematically contradict or resonate the Controlling Idea of the main plot, if it doesn’t set up the introduction of the main plot’s Inciting Incident, or complicates the action on the main plot, if it merely runs alongside, it will split the story down the middle and destroy its effect.”
This quote is taken from Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. In plain terms it means that a subplot should serve to expand upon the story’s main theme or to complicate the main plot. Han and Leia’s flight in the Millenium Falcon is a good example of a subplot that complicates the main plot (i.e. Luke’s attempt to become a Jedi). In the video essay, Hidden Figures was used to illustrate examples of subplots that serve to expand the story’s main theme.
I thought I’d take a look at my own current work and try to analyze whether the subplots I have work to do one or the other. Hopefully, such a process will prove useful to all of you when you attempt to decipher for yourself whether the subplot in your current work falls in one of these two categories.
Step #1: Identify the main theme of your work, if it has one.
Okay, my story’s main(ish) protagonist is a girl who constantly struggles to make choices. Does she make them in light of her mother’s promise to keep her family together, or does she do as she wishes? So you could say the main theme is choice, with two subheadings of freedom and loyalty.
Step #2: What are each of the plots about?
The main character’s plot is about making the choice to go after her family to salvage what remains of them. One of the subplots is about trying to find a wizard who is highly involved in each of the character’s lives. Another subplot is about the ruling of the country and how the choices made up top affect those down below. The last subplot deals with whether you choose to rebel against the ruling power or whether you stay loyal. So, I guess you could say that several of the subplots do serve to continue the main theme of choice.
Step #3: Which of the two categories do these movies fall into?
Definitely the first.
That is roughly my process for deciding what kind of subplot I have. However, to discover whether the subplot is essential or not, it is rather simple to find an answer. Ask yourself: will removing this subplot from the story effect it negatively? If the answer is yes, the plot is integral. If you answered no, then remove it. Be careful before completely cutting a subplot; often you may find yourself saying no because the subplot only serves to grow character. Just think of The Empire Strikes Back when you are tempted to cut it. The subplot concerning the passengers of the Millenium Falcon may not be action-packed, but it is certainly important to developing the characters, including Luke who sees their fortune through flashbacks.
The next time you’re writing and your character’s paths start to diverge, think carefully about the importance of each path and how one supports the other. Or, like me, you could not plan at all and be pleasantly surprised to find out that the rest of your planning worked out for the subplots as well. But you didn’t hear it from me.
Comment what writing advice you have and whether you found this advice helpful!