Subplots are integral to deep, rich stories and a mainstay in the serial comic.
What exactly is a subplot? From Storycraft for Comics;
Subplots are smaller, specific story arcs within the broader (main) story.
In essence a subplot is a side story, something us writers are all familiar with… But while the definition of the subplot is common sense, integrating them effectively can be a bit more complicated.
When working with subplots, keep this hard rule in mind;
A subplot must not be superfluous.
It must tie-in and directly support the main narrative.
Where do subplots belong?
The first act of the story is introducing the main players and setting. Generally, if you start your subplots in the first act, you’re likely to muddle/waterdown your main story and distract or confuse the reader. So most of the time you don’t want to add your sub plots to the first act.
The third act of the story is where you wrap things up, showcasing the climax/resolution the entire story’s been building to, the repercussions or denouement, etc. Any subplot introduced in the third act will need to be rushed through to resolution, feel choppy or left unresolved. All of these should be avoided.
So this leaves us with the second act, which as it turns out, is a great place to drop in your subplots.
Since second acts are generally meatier than first or third acts, the second act gives ample time to establish subplots earlier on, develop them and either bring them to resolution at the end of the second act or (more likely) carry their resolution into the final act (more on that in a minute).
How many subplots in a single story?
You can break subplots into one of two categories, Major or Minor.
Most of the time, you’ll typically only have one major subplot per story.
If you’re showcasing multiple major subplots, you’re likely actually working on some sort of parallel narrative.
How many minor subplots you integrate depends on the content, complexity, size of the script and your personal ability to juggle multiple threads. Will talk a bit more about this the size of individual subplots below.
What should a subplot showcase?
In theory subplots can be executed to support any core element of the narrative.
Want a subplot that ties into elevating the entire stakes of the story? Go for it. What about a subplot that focuses on the main character arc? Or a subplot that reinforces the Master Theme? Those sound good to me.
When working with subplots, just be sure you know what you want to say both structurally and narratively. The examples above are structural goals.
Let’s say we’re working on a superhero script… and we decide we want to have our Major subplot involve the hero and a teenage friend (platonic relationship) and that the purpose of the subplot is to elevate the entire stakes of the story.
Narratively speaking, perhaps our goal is to develop their friendship and tie the teenagers parents as hostages into the climax–elevating the emotional connection of the people in jeopardy and in turn elevating the stakes of the final hero showdown (and in turn main story).
I often compare an outline (and story structure in general) to a road map. The main structural elements are all there to get you to your destination. Think of subplots as alternate routes or shortcuts on this map.
We’ve already established that a subplot must be relevant and tie into the narrative.
If it didn’t, your alternate route would lead you to a dead-end. In a similar vein of thinking, we can say the further along a subplot progresses the story, the more impactful and relevant it is.
Of course, we’re not talking about using a subplot to literally skip time and jump us further along the plot.
Though that’s possible, when we say “progress” (or support) the story” we mean introduce elements that connect dots, create new dots that will soon be connected, or otherwise keep the story moving toward its conclusion.
// An overlapping concept here is your scene selection. There’s a few articles on that topic here worth checking out. //
For example. Working off this superhero concept;
Our subplot has to do with the hero’s sick aunt in the hospital.
At worst, this is a superflouous dead-end subplot.
The aunt adds nothing specific and has no other role in the story. The time spent here doesn’t progress or support the story in any meaningful way. If we remove this subplot completely the narrative is not disturbed.
Minor, as a small shortcut–used for some character development. This character development doesn’t turn the story in any major ways, but it does reinforce the character a bit. Since it’s not progressing the story too much, it’s not too impactful. If we remove this subplot completely the narrative loses a little something, but is otherwise intact.
// Note that you can certainly have a more effective minor subplot. This is just one example. //
Major, as a big shortcut–the aunt turns for the worse and dies. Before she dies, she reveals the secret of the hero’s father and his secret batcave filled with high-tech weapons and equipment. The hero uses this gear to defeat the MAF in the climax. If we remove this subplot completely, the narrative stops dead in its tracks.
You see by these examples, Active, direct effect consequences are more impactful, then subtle or indirect consequences.
You may have noticed the third example, ties directly into the resolution of the story. Since the climax of the story is generally the crescendo or pay-off of the entire narrative, most of the time, subplots that actively connect and support the climax of the story are the most impactful.
How many parts should a subplot have?
Maybe there’s an argument somewhere for a single part subplot… but most of the time, they’ll be most effective reflective of three act structure with a;
and End (resolution).
As a soft rule, here is a math chart for you. We’ll use “part” and “scene” interchangeably here, with this formula being based off the total number of scenes in the script.
10% total script scenes = minimum
12.5% total script scenes = Light
18% total script scenes = Strong
25% total script scenes = Dominant
Do not dare question the wizard’s math.
YES, scenes can vary significantly in size–scene sizes–but regardless, if you want some sort of metric to structure the scope of your Major subplot, this is a good base starting point. It works. Trust me.
Minor subplots are usually less robust than their Major counterparts.
The key with minor subplots is sticking with at least three parts, and structuring them relative to your Major (and other Minor) subplots. This may sound more confusing than it is…
If you have a 25% dominant Major subplot, your minor subplots will need to be smaller and faster.
If you’re running a minimal or light Major subplot, your minors can be larger and slower.
This chart and concept are not to be used as chains to confine you, but to help assess a starting point, organize yourself, and set initial goals.
Ultimately, developing and integrating subplots is a matter of how many scenes your entire story has and how good you are a weaving your story threads together. Keep these subplot tips in mind during your next script and I guarantee you’re narrative will tighten up. If not, I owe you a coffee. But I’ll put odds you’ll be buying the drinks after finishing your next script. ▪
About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S. Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.