The Value of Subplots

Posted on 25 January 2011

Films with a driving plot, films that swiftly take you on a roller-coaster ride from one adrenalin pumping event to another, are seen as completely bankable. And yet when the trajectory is too focussed and the story too simple, many films fail. What they need are subplots.

Stories where the protagonist merely goes from point A to point B are predictable. Predictability equals boring. In the same way jokes without a surprise ending, have no punchline either and are therefore not funny, eg “I knew this dog once, he had a full bladder, then he peed on a tree!” Peeing on a tree could be funny, but not in this case.

Certainly, if you put various obstacles in the way from point A to point B you can add some interest. Let’s say we have a story about a woman scaling Mount Everest. If along the way she has to face a storm, a land slide, and hypoxia, that is more engaging than watching her scrabble up rocks for two hours.

If our climber has an emotional stake in climbing the mountain: it’s not just something she’s doing—it’s something she’s doing for a reason, then we’ve increased the interest again. Perhaps she has already lost a leg in a previous climb and she wants to prove she’s still a capable person. Now let’s say her father has cancer, and she wants to show him that she can continue to take care of herself before he dies. With this subplot we’ve increased her motivation and added more substance to the story.

More than that, with a subplot we have potentially added complications. Part of the way up the mountain our climber may discover that her father could die before she reaches the summit. Does she complete her climb or does she return to spend a last few moments with her dad?

Comedy thrives on complications. Perhaps a comic protagonist on a bicycle needs to deliver a cake from point A to point B. Along the way he must contend with a dog, a police officer, and a runaway pram. Each of those encounters could be made into funny vignettes, but we don’t have a funny story yet to hold it all together.

A simple motivation for our comic protagonist can be that if he doesn’t deliver the cake by 3pm, he will not get paid. That certainly creates more comic and dramatic tension. Let’s say he needs the money in order to pay for a date that night. The stakes have been raised. The subplot can be that he told his girlfriend he’s independently wealthy and so can’t be seen doing his job. With this subplot we run into complications when the girl walking her dog is his date’s friend, the officer is her father, and the runaway pram runs past her home.

Subplots also represent life more faithfully. They make it possible to better develop all the characters in your story. Every person has an inner life of thoughts, feelings, and motivations; every person has their own story. These stories are going to interact in different ways much like the ingredients in a recipe, which in varying arrangements and amounts will create entirely unique dishes. This steers us away from the egocentric story where only the life of one individual is considered of any importance.

Considering the lives of each of your characters will also make it harder to fall into easy clichés or treat people as gun fodder. Human beings are recognised as being more than just pixels in a game. It’s no longer fun to mindlessly destroy the lives of people whose humanity you have come to understand. It’s no longer fun to poke fun at race, weight, gender, etc when you understand the very real feelings that may be hurt. So, you will be stretched to find humor that raises itself up from these things. You will also be creating stories rich in detail and broad in appeal.

Whether or not you find a way to fit in all your characters’s stories, even a few subplots will improve your film, stageplay, teleplay, etc. Knowing the backstories to all your characters will also make possible little details that will bring them to life.

Peace and kindness,


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