(Spoilers: Little Miss Sunshine, Almost Famous, Whiplash, Guardians of the Galaxy)
When we discuss story structure, most of our attention naturally focuses on the main plot line. And this is good – it’s the main plot line that forms the skeleton of the story. But often writers don’t put much thought into their subplots and the way those subplots can support the themes of the story.
Supporting the theme of the movie is one of the primary uses of a subplot. Often subplots will illustrate alternate paths or approaches to the central theme. One way of doing this is to create characters with a different point of view on the key thematic issue of the movie.
Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) provides a great example of this. Thematically, the story is about what it means to be a “winner.” The main character, Richard, establishes his point of view in one of his very first lines when he says: “There are two kinds of people in the world, winners and losers.” Before he’s willing to pack the family off to California, he tells Olive there’s no point in entering a contest unless she thinks she can win. And Richard firmly believes anyone can be a winner if they have the right mindset and commitment – in fact he’s planning a business based on telling people how to become winners.
The other characters in the story provide alternate perspectives. Olive mimics the poses of beauty pageant winners in her introduction, indicating her desire to be a beauty queen. However, at the end we discover she’s actually more interested in the joy of the competition than victory.
Dwayne is committed to his goal of being a pilot with single-minded purpose. However his dream is destroyed by something completely out of his control, exposing the flaw in Richard’s belief that the key to winning comes from attitude.
Uncle Frank represents a loser, someone who has given up on life. Grandpa’s point of view is that you should enjoy life and not worry about winning and losing. And Sheryl is the counterpoint, the practical one trying to hold the family together day by day. She isn’t concerned with being a winner, she’s just trying to get by.
Each of these characters provides a subplot that illuminates the thematic elements of the film.
Oscar nominated Whiplash (written by Damien Chazelle) explores the commitment and sacrifice required to be great, and the fine line between abuse and mentorship. The main plot line involves Andrew and his teacher, Fletcher, a cruel mentor who believes abuse is necessary to craft great musicians.
One of the main subplots involves Andrew’s family, particularly his father, who represents another perspective. Andrew’s father is loving and supportive, and is horrified at Fletcher’s treatment of Andrew. We definitely like the father better than Fletcher. However, the father is also a failed writer. And there’s a telling family dinner scene where another young man is being lauded for football accomplishments that Andrew calls out as mediocre. So the family subplot serves as a warning of what can happen if one lauds mediocrity. Because it provides a glimpse of a warm and supportive world, but also a trap that could undermine Andrew’s goals, it creates complexity in the theme.
There’s another subplot involving Andrew’s girlfriend. Ultimately Andrew breaks up with her because he feels she will become a distraction. This narrative thread shows us a potential alternative to Andrew’s choices. He could be in a happy relationship if he chose. The girlfriend subplot also illustrates an aspect of Andrew’s character – how much he’s willing to sacrifice for his goal. This is another use of subplots. They can add dimension to the character.
In Guardians of the Galaxy (screenplay by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman) Quill’s character has a subplot about his mother’s death and a cassette tape she left him. This gives us character insight that humanizes the character and adds vulnerability. Though Quill is a charming, wisecracking thief we enjoy spending time with, it’s the subplot about his mother that really engages our emotion. (In fact, all of the characters that comprise our team of heroes have similar back-stories that create vulnerability and sympathy.)
One other common use of subplots is as a catalyst for the character arc. For example, the main plot of Almost Famous (written by Cameron Crowe) is about William wanting to be a rock journalist. His problem is that he’s too worshipful of the rock stars to be objective. He isn’t heeding his mentor’s advice to be “truthful and merciless.”
There’s a romantic subplot in the movie between William and Penny Lane. Penny Lane’s character serves many purposes – to explain the world of rock and roll to William, to add vulnerability and heart – but it’s the treatment of Penny by the rock stars that finally disillusions William enough to be truthful and merciless. Penny is the catalyst for William’s growth.
Subplots will have their own three-act structure, though it won’t usually run at the same pace as the main storyline. Some subplots won’t start until after Act One. Many will wrap up before the end of Act Two so that Act Three can focus on the main storyline.
Once you’ve outlined the main structure of the movie, it can be useful to examine your subplots and figure out what purpose they can serve. Perhaps you’ll need to adjust a subplot to more fully explore your thematic ground. Perhaps a minor character with no purpose can be given a purpose.
And then you should outline the subplots, making sure you have a clear beginning, middle and end, and identifying where those fall in the script. If you use the common index card technique to outline your stories, you might find it helpful to use cards of different colors for the subplots. That will allow you to see how the subplot scenes integrate with the main plot.
Your subplots can do a lot for your story. Don’t waste them!