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‘When the main planks of your structure are in place, it’s time to look at the smaller timbers’

Subplots and adding texture to your story

from Complete Screenwriting Course by Charles Harris


With the main planks of the structure in place, it’s time to look at the smaller timbers. Without any subplots, a story can feel very restricted. Subplots add variety and give you the opportunity to show the audience different sides of your main characters which the main plot cannot, by its nature, reveal.


To avoid feeling too one-paced or claustrophobic, a story should have at least one subplot, and can have up to five, although the fourth and fifth plot-lines will need to be very simple to avoid overbalancing the whole. More than five subplots will be too complicated for a one-off, and the average is two or three.


For example, in John Ford’s classic Western The Searchers (screenplay by Frank S. Nugent), Ethan Edwards and Martin Pawley spend years on the trail of Debbie, Ethan’s niece and Martin’s adoptive sister, who has been abducted by a Comanche war party. The main story focuses on the long search and shows Ethan’s fierce determination and Martin’s growing self-confidence.


Meanwhile, the first subplot develops their personal relationship, coloured by the fact that Ethan shows elements of racism, and Martin has some American-Indian blood. Initially antagonistic, this subplot allows Nugent to show a softening of Ethan’s attitude that could not have been shown in the main plot.


A second subplot follows the growing but complicated romantic relationship between Martin and a girl from a neighbouring ranch, again allowing the script to draw out otherwise hidden sides to his character, while keeping the script moving forwards.



How to develop and edit subplots

The same techniques apply when creating and editing subplots as with the main plot: GOATS – Goal, Obstacle, Action, Tactics, Stakes.


Decide who the lead character of the subplot is – usually it will be the same protagonist as in the main story, though not always. What is his goal, what’s stopping him, what actions does he take, what new tactics is he forced to adopt, what’s at stake?


Larger subplots may have a detailed three-act structure with turning points, although smaller subplots will be simpler, with perhaps only two turning points, or one. A very short subplot may contain as little as a brief beginning with a single turning point leading to the final battle.


Key idea

Subplots have similar structures to a main storyline, but generally simplified.


Often the turning points of different plot-lines will be close together, to avoid multiple climaxes – indeed, one event may be a turning point in two or more plot-lines. For example, when Rosa goes into labour in All About My Mother, this is a turning point in the main story, and also in Rosa’s own subplot.


A subplot may be resolved at the end or sometimes be left hanging – although you should avoid leaving your story with too many loose ends. The resolution may indeed come through the resolution of one of the other plot-lines, For example, an important character may die, bringing to an end two subplots that concern him.


However, subplots cannot live alone, separate from the main plot. They need to feed into the main plot and influence it in some way. If you can lift a subplot out completely and have no effect on the main story, then it probably should (and very likely will) be cut.