The Units of Story: The Subplot

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.


18 comments on “The Units of Story: The Subplot

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    Thanks for this very reassuring post Shawn! I realize now that I’ve been trying to force a subplot into my WIP like a pair of size 7 shoes on my size 8 feet. I’m going to step back and let it sit on a slow simmer for a while and see if my unconscious can help sort it out for me before I decide to rework it or toss it.

  2. Knowing that Subplots have all of the same things that all units of story have, but critical scenes (like the Crisis, Climax and Resolution) can and maybe even should occur offstage is great learning for me. And it helps me resolve something I’ve been struggling with in my own WIP. Thanks again, Shawn, for all that you are doing to help us!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Great to hear Debbie! keep plugging.

  3. Michael Beverly says:

    It’s like playing chess.

    Okay, so now that I’ve finished GONE GIRL, attention, spoilers coming, I wanted to ask about that mixed genre thing in relation to this post.

    In a mixed genre, are the two global stories entirely separate from sub plot and each with a major pay off? Then they would just “share” the subplots?

    OR, is there still a “main” global story, BUT one of the sub plots is so big it makes it a mixed genre by being such a big sub plot, but still a sub plot?

    Hope that makes sense. I was wondering if I planned on writing a mix genre if I should write two outlines and then weave them together?

    So, finally, GONE GIRL, you won’t believe how close to home that hit.

    When I fell in love with the younger, vibrant, “not her” woman, and my wife found out, she took a course of action that ensured jail time. By the time it was over I’d lost everything; home, job, friends, church, religion; the only thing I retained was family.

    The irony is that my fight to retain humanity has made me a much better person, a fuller person. An alive person. She remains asleep.

    Do you think that subplots are best when they appear out of a writers own pain and struggle and that it’s best to, as you mentioned, let them come out of the subconscious?

    Because I suppose this would dictate the type of stories I should stick to working on, teasing my own inner pain, weakness and despair as well as tapping into the strength that pulled me back from chasing an entire bottle of sleeping pills with two-fifths of vodka.

    I think my only complaint about GONE GIRL is that Flynn missed a few things because she’s not a man. That and I didn’t like the ending; I wanted the wife to pay.

    1. What I’ve discovered in using my own pain for story: sometimes, it’s the horrific pain that resonates in the song or story. Other times, it’s the strength.

      And still other times, it’s the avoidance, the prevention, the palpable showing how this didn’t become that which, admittedly, is hard, but I’ve managed to pull it off in a song here and there.

      Pain can be the genesis, but with different agar you’ll get different growths in the petri dish.

    2. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Michael,
      My advice is to just consciously ignore the pain when you write. Here’s why.
      If you consciously put the ax grinding into your story, it will feel pedantic and angry. But if you just allow your life’s history to inform you as you construct something that has nothing to do with your personal inner turmoil…magic will happen. You’ll write a scene about a guy getting a haircut and arguing with the customer next to him and it will someone magically transform into a metaphor for what ails the guy deep down. Sorry to keep harping on Chinatown, but the early scene in the barber shop tells you everything you need to know about Jake Gittes. This guy doesn’t like what he does for a living…P.I. work unearthing infidelities. So when confronted with defending what it is he does, he rages outwardly…willing to throw punches (and receive them too) to defend his “honest living.” I’m sure Robert Towne didn’t consciously write that scene to be a metaphor for the self-hatred Gittes has for the circumstances of his life, but it sure did work out that way. That’s what I call magic. Do you think Robert Towne had some inner pain about the life he’d chosen for himself too? Hmmm a screenwriter in Hollywood trying to get stuff made without losing his convictions and literary ambitions….

      1. Marvelous advice. Subtext rules.

        1. Michael Beverly says:

          Less is more. I learned that in oil painting. It’s an easy thing to understand, hard, sometimes to practice.

          1. I love these parallels between the arts: prose, song, and painting.

      2. Michael Beverly says:

        Thanks Shawn, I do see that.
        I want to make magic.

    3. Tina Goodman says:

      A lot of people (including women) were not happy with the ending of Gone Girl. But I think any child she births will bring her much pain, that’s how I look at it. Her parents created the monster that she is, and her child will be much worse. Karma. (I think they may have changed the ending for the movie version.)

  4. Elanor says:

    Thank you for another great post! I especially like the advice about letting the subconscious take care of the subplots in the first draft. I think that’s going to save me a lot of time. lol

    I was wondering if there’s a good way to tell if a subplot needs to become its own plot in a novel, or vice versa. Or, is there no such thing as a book with multiple plots? I’m thinking of epic fantasy series, like Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives, that are told in multiple POV and each main character has his or her own plot within each novel that weave together to form the series plot.

    1. Michael Beverly says:

      This is kind of like the question I was pondering/asking/thinking about myself.

      Do you outline two (or more) main plots, and then allow the subplots to interweave between them. I think yes.

      Considering SOTL it’s got Hannibal who is both an antagonist and a protagonist. He’s got his own agenda, to escape, and that’s a plot in and of itself. Not as big as the overall plot, but still, it plays a pretty dominate part of the story.

      I think you could find each of the five story anchors from his perspective:
      Inciting incident: CS shows up
      Progressive complication: The secret tape recording/a deal
      Crisis: Does he take the deal with Senator and lose CS?
      Climax: He escapes (but not before he passes CS the final clue)
      Resolution: He goes to plastic surgery clinic where he can safely plot his revenge

      I’m not sure if I got those right, but I’m sure I’m close to something that lays out the story from his perspective, even though he’s a sadistic monster, we the audience, root for him.

      My guess is that to write at this level there has to be some conscious outlining and planning from multiple characters, each with their own plot, and that the subtext/subplot undercurrent of tension flows through all of them simultaneously.

      I wonder if Harris, when he was writing SOTL, had in mind a love affair between Hannibal and Clarence later on?

      For me, that was too far. I lost interest in the series after that, neither seeing the film or reading the next book. And it’s not that I’m a prude, it just stretched my credibility so much I was done.

      1. Shawn Coyne says:

        Hi Michael,
        This is the beauty of having both external and internal content genres in your work. One takes the backseat as “subplot”, while the other drives the global story. The dominant decision (either external or internal) will determine your global story, while the underlying genre (either external or internal) will add the subtext. I highly recommend you choose both external and internal genres for your work and I’ll add that the one you want to go with as you global/dominant one is probably a mistake. The other one is the key to bringing out the truth of what you really want to say. Stephen King’s THE SHINING is dominated by its external genre, but only on cursory examination. When King is at his best (and that is a lot of the time) what he does is make you think that he’s pushing the big external, when in fact the internal is what’s really driving the story.

        I could go on and on…
        All the best,

  5. I’ve been catching up on these posts and am glad to see a new one. This is the best article on subplots I’ve read and I’m looking forward to the book, Shawn.

    In your experience, how many subplots do bestselling novels have? I only have one in my current WIP and I’m torn between feeling like there should be more and feeling like more would only ruin it. It’s interesting that Misery only has one while SOTL has more than three.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Michael,
      Thanks so much for joining up. My advice is to not worry about how many you have, but how well they mesh. The important thing is that they amount to more than the sum of their parts. So ideally, you’ll have a payoff of a subplot coincide with the payoff of the global plot and the result will be a bigger bang than if they were just to payoff in different scenes. Obviously, all of this stuff is more inside baseball than one needs when they’re banging out a first draft. Just get some clay together on that first draft and give yourself the permission to pick it apart and find the problems and solutions to those problems later on.
      All the best

      1. I’m past the first draft, so this is exactly the right amount of inside baseball, thanks!

  6. DC Harrell says:

    Very helpful, particularly the bit where you show how a subplot scene sets up the global story turn. I’d love to see more on that, perhaps one more example, in the final book. I’m also relieved that the next post is about sending the editor to Venice, while the writer is working.

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