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Monday, June 8, 2009

Writing Subplots

There are two main purposes for subplots:

1. to assist with the denouement of the climax – the subplot provides some mechanism of the story that is necessary for the Story Question to be successfully resolved.

2. to highlight the moral struggle that the protagonist undergoes. The subplot main character struggles with the same moral problem, but answers it in a different way.

I found that in most “popular” or “mainstream” novels and movies, there were usually five general story lines:

A line – Story Question; external story
B line – Protagonist’s “hidden need”; internal story
C line – antagonist story line
D line –additional external story line
E line – additional internal story line

Story lines focus on the different constellations of characters, whereas subplots describe story events. Therefore, you can have more than one subplot in the C, D and E story lines, although one is often sufficient. I advise caution, since too many subplots easily muddy the forward thrust of the story.

Each subplot story line, especially on the E line, should ideally progress through the following stages of a Story (from John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story). Remember that, for the subplot, the SP main character should struggle with the same issue as your protagonist but answer it in a different way. For example, in Lord of the Rings, Smeagle/Gollum mirrors Frodo, and Boromere mirrors Aragorn.

Stage 1: Weakness, Problem, and Need

Your SP main character has a weakness within himself of which he’s not aware at the beginning of the story. The weakness is MORAL (it hurts others) as well as PSYCHOLOGICAL (it hurts the character). Your SP main character also has a story problem stemming from this weakness. Finally, he has a need to solve this weakness.

Example: My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Toula’s WEAKNESS: she doesn’t appreciate her family, although her family desperately wants her to join with them and are sad that she pulls away.

Toula’s PROBLEM: she wants to be seen as an individual, but her family holds to her so tightly that she will *never* be free.

Toula’s NEED: she must learn to be proud to be part of her Greek family as well as to be an individual.

Stage 2: Desire

Your SP main character has an outward desire, the story question of the subplot.

Example: My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Toula’s DESIRE: she wants to fall in love and get married.

Stage 3: Opponent

The opponent is the character who is competing with the SP protagonist for the same goal.

Example: My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Toula’s GOAL: she wants to be an individual, separate from her family.
Family’s GOAL: they want Toula to be part of the family.

Stage 4: Plan

Your SP main character must have at least a vague idea, or maybe a more detailed plan, of how he plans to fight the opponent to gain his desire.

Example: My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Toula’s PLAN: she will keep dating Ian, whether or not the family approves.

Stage 5: Battle

Your SP main character and opponent battle for supremacy . This is a punch-counterpunch series of actions.

Example: My Big Fat Greek Wedding

BATTLE: Toula’s family tries a number of tactics to get her to separate from Ian: forbidding her to see him, using guilt, and introducing her to more *suitable* men. Once they realize that she’s going to marry Ian despite their best efforts, they take over control of the wedding plans. Toula continuously battles for her identity apart from the family.

Stage 6: Self-Revelation

After a great deal of painful struggle, your SP main character realizes and solves his need that you identified in Stage 1. Don’t make this revelation too easy or too obvious (don’t have your character come out and say it!), or your story will fall flat. Instead, demonstrate how this need has been solved.

Example: My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Toula is depressed the night before her wedding because she realizes she will never be free of her family. Her grandmother enters the room and shows Toula a picture of herself as a bride, then gives Toula the wedding crown that she wore. Toula suddenly realizes that her family’s inclusiveness is a good thing, full of rich history, identity, and love. Toula is speechless as she hugs her grandmother.

Stage 7: New Equilibrium

Your SP main character has solved his need, or else lost his opportunity to solve it. Desire (Stage 2) is gone so that he simply will continue to live his life at a higher (or lower) level than before.

Example: My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Toula celebrates the wedding reception with Ian and her family. Toula’s father gets up and makes a joke that although the two families are different, they are in fact now unified. Toula and Ian are then shown six years later walking with their own little daughter to Greek school. Toula tells the daughter that she can marry anyone she wants.

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copyright 2009 by Amy Deardon. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

Lindsey Himmler said...

This is excellently done - very helpful! Thank you!