Certain storytelling questions keep popping up. One of them, and a goodie, is this: does a sub-plot follow the same principles of linear structure as the main plotline?
In other words, does the sub-plot also – like your main plotline – unfold over four contextually different parts, each separated by a succinctly defined milestone story-point?
This can be tough to wrap one’s head around. Because one answer is: yes it does. Another is: sometimes, or even, it certainly can. Perhaps a better answer is: it depends.
Which is why this is considered art.
Setting Up Your Sub-Plot
Great stories give us deep and compelling heroes. Part of that greatness involves imbuing your hero with a life. Where they are on that life’s path as we meet them, and on multiple levels, becomes the starting point of their character arc.
The opening act of your story – Part 1 –exists for the purpose of introducing and defining that life as it exists prior to the arrival of the First Plot Point. Because it shows us what they have going, what it is they have to gain or lose, Part 1 defines the stakes of the dramatic story to come.
Which, by the way, is only foreshadowed and set-up – and, at best, only partially defined – in Part 1.
Then comes the First Plot Point, and it changes everything. Including your sub-plot.
Sometimes the First Plot Point defines a completely new life for your hero. Or, just as validly, it merely puts their prior path on hold until they meet a short-term goal. Like, staying alive until a near-term threat (the main storyline) has been squashed.
Right here, at the First Plot Point, is where you – the author – need to be very clear on which is the main storyline and what drops into the background as a sub-plot.
While the main storyline is always that newly minted drama and need, as launched the by First Plot Point, the sub-plot becomes the continuation of some aspect of what they wanted and needed before the First Plot Point changed everything.
How you string out your sub-plot, then, depends on which of those cases it is. Is it on hold? Or does it demand immediate, real-time attention concurrent with what your hero is dealing with on center stage?
That answer defines how you handle the sub-plot in a structural sense.
If it’s on hold, then you need to bring it back contextually and with subtlety over the course of the story. Where and how that happens isn’t critical, as long as it does… artfully.
For example, picture your 12-step hero casting a longing glance at a glass of Scotch, even though someone is pointing a gun at them. This reminds us of an emotional burden or complication to the hero’s primary story journey, and as such, his struggle with alcohol becomes a sub-plot.
If the sub-plot remains an urgent agenda, one that impacts decisions and behaviors that will come to bear on the primary plotline, then it should evolve and play out precisely according to the context of the four parts of a story – set-up/orphan…. Response/wanderer…. Attack/warrior… resolution/hero-martyr.
If, in the prior example, the hero belts down that Scotch and as a result can’t see straight in an attempt to escape, that’s sub-plot clobbering the primary plot between the eyes.
When this is the case, your sub-plot must adhere to the structural context for the part of the story within which you are working. Don’t try to resolve a sub-plot in Part 2, for example, since your hero should be in wanderer/responding mode at that point.
One of the challenges of sub-plots is its very nature.
If the sub-plot is a separate dramatic issue that parallels the main story’s exposition but doesn’t ever really impact it, then you must take care that it doesn’t distract from and even compete with the primary drama.
Example: a story about someone trying to graduate from medical school despite the dark efforts of a jilted-lover professor (never sleep with your anatomy professor) to sabotage the diploma, can’t easily co-exist with a sub-plot about a loan shark trying to collect on a college loan by breaking the hero’s legs.
A great sub-plot is subtle, even diabolically subtle, without trying to take over the story.
Here’s a liberating guideline to the crafting of your sub-plots.
If your story is plot-driven, then make your sub-plot about characterization. Have the sub-plot emerge from the hero’s inner landscape, and have it be a temptation or a burden as they deal with the primary drama at hand.
If your story is character-driven, such as a romantic comedy or serious family drama, have your sub-plot involve a dramatically-driven need, such as financial troubles or health problems or career stuff, the things that darken our days despite what we’re already dealing with in life.
Look for this in the stories you read and the movies you watch… it’ll be there almost every time.
In any case, the four part structure remains.
Like a cross-country flight, the main storyline charts a course and follows a flight plan toward a destination with consequences and meaning. It’s linear, even when there are bumps and the occasional mechanical problem.
The sub-plot, while perhaps unfolding on the same flight, is more about the flirty flight attendant or the guy next to you who won’t shut up.
One realm is always in context to the other.
Just make sure you know which story is in the pilot’s seat and which one is serving coffee.