What is a Subplot?
July 21, 2023
You've almost certainly heard the term "A story." This self-evidently means the main plot of a movie or TV show. The one the logline is about. That protagonist who wants something and the major obstacles, etc. etc. etc.
But the term "A story" implies that there are other letters in there somewhere. What's a "B story" or a "C story?" Or even a "D story?" Are these like grades? Am I flunking out?!
Take a deep breath. Those subsequent-lettered stories are just mini-stories that are also known as "Subplots."
As the prefix "sub" implies, a subplot takes place underneath the main plot.
(I know, dissecting the word is SUCH a professor thing. We can't help ourselves, it's like dad jokes to us.)
Subplots cause my introductory-level students a fair bit of anxiety. I understand. Why should you be worrying about a subplot when you're wrestling for your life with this unruly main plot that refuses to be tamed?
Trust me, though: subplots are your friend. Think of them as little helpers to your A story. And they're not that hard to whip up when you know about the secret sauce of subplots…
The Secret Sauce of Subplots
All is about to be revealed. It's going to sound so simple and obvious when I say it. There's a trick to creating subplots, and it is *not* complicated. It's not even really a trick.
Subplots are the stories of…(isn't the suspense killing you?)...the supporting characters.
Almost all subplots are driven by a character or characters whose existence is related to the protagonist in some way, even tangentially, but whose story isn't directly occurring in the same time and space as the A story, or at least not in every scene.
They are, at least for some parts of the tale, having their own related but separate adventure. Until, eventually, their story intersects with and merges with the main story.
Easy peasy lemon squeezy, right?
Read More: 7 Steps on How to Develop a Plot
Creating subplots can actually be kind of fun. I emphasize this because when I teach new screenwriters, they often find the thought of subplots too daunting. But subplots can give a lot of depth and extra layers to a story, and nobody should fear them.
Pro tip: If the thought of writing a subplot gives you the heebie-jeebies, don't worry about it when busting out that first draft. Use it as something that can be additive later when you're going back to rewrite.
This is particularly helpful when you get that first draft done and your feature-length epic that you thought would clock in at Dune proportions is actually…58 pages long. And it's finished, you definitely got everything in there. So what now? I see this kind of thing a lot.
Solution: to the subplots!
(Or maybe you accidentally wrote a series pilot. Also a possibility.)
Functions of Subplots
There are many different purposes that subplots can fulfill in relation to the central narrative, but just a few of the biggies are:
- Further explore the story's themes.
- Provide contrast and conflict with the A story.
- Build suspense and tension as the audience guesses how it will impact the main plot.
- Serve as comic relief.
- Include a romance when the central plot is not a love story.
My favorite reason for creating subplots, total honesty time? A subplot can simply give a storyteller something to cut away to, giving the writer, reader, and eventually the audience, a break from the main plot.
It's only in some instances where subplots are used, but in some movies, the subplot takes center stage for a few scenes or a sequence, usually in the second half of Act II.
Where are the Subplots?
Which begs the question, where do subplots go? Structurally within a story, subplots can live anywhere, although it's not uncommon to find them existing wholly within Act II.
I personally appreciate this type of subplot that starts, develops and wraps up entirely within the middle portion of the story — but it's not a rule. Plenty of subplots run alongside the main story for the length of the film.
In comedy, it's an often-used gag to save the resolution of a forgotten subplot for the very last scene of a film, when the story seems to be wrapped up entirely, only to surprise the audience with the unexpected return to a character or storyline they'd thought was resolved. A thoroughly mauled Principal Rooney being forced to ride the bus back to school at the end of Ferris Bueller's Day Off is just one example.
Read More: Hiding Plot Points
Oh Yeah, Examples — We Want Examples!
Of course you do, you're only reading this if you heart movies and TV shows. I live to serve. Some sweet, sweet subplots:
Thematic Subplot: In the box office smash and triple Oscar nominee Hidden Figures, the subplots follow the characters of Mary and Dorothy, friends and colleagues of Katherine (the protagonist), who experience similar racial barriers in their NASA careers, reinforcing the central theme that the Katherine isn't advancing as she should solely due to her race and gender and despite her contributions — because the same exact thing is happening to others for the same exact reasons. Their subplots also present possible other avenues that Katherine could take in dealing with her problem — Mary sues for access to the additional education she needs to succeed, while Dorothy masters a new and threatening technology, getting herself placed in charge of its implementation.
Romantic Subplot: A very common subplot is to include a romance in a story that's not centrally romantic. Han and Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy. Tony and Pepper in the Iron Man and Avengers saga. If we're sticking with big franchises, I like the James Bond-Vesper Lynd romance in Casino Royale, the loss of which I'd argue Bond never truly gets over, which has a high cost to the central character by the end of the Daniel Craig 007 era — his cynicism about love and self-protective reluctance to give that much of himself away again blocks him from having all he could have by the final film in the cycle, No Time to Die (feel me sweating to avoid spoilers, here?).
Comic Subplot: Remember the McLovin'-cops subplot in Superbad? Of course you do — like a lot of people, you may actually remember it better than the A story, which is about besties Seth and Evan's strained friendship over one wild night out at the end of high school. Occasionally, the McLovin' storyline intersects with the central plot, but for long stretches, it's on its own, and it's at least as funny (if not more so) than the part of the movie we're supposed to be focusing on. How they didn't make a McLovin' sequel, I'll never know.
Fear Not the Subplot
Just as Blue Öyster Cult urges us not to "fear the reaper," I urge you not to fear the subplot. It can expand and define the main plot in ways that no other writing tool can, and empower you to develop supporting characters in ways that endlessly enrich your protagonist and A story.
And…subplots have allowed me to work a '70s hard rock classic reference into a screenwriting blog post. #winning
Written by: Karl WilliamsKarl Williams is a screenwriting instructor at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona. He has won the Comedy and Sci-Fi Awards at the Austin Film Festival and the Jack Nicholson Prize for Excellence in Screenwriting at UCLA, where he earned his MFA.