Tip #71 — Make your sub-plot about character arc.

Many of you know I’ve recently launched an ebook called “101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters.”  In fact, many of you have already bought one. 

One of the upsides is that I have a repository of 101 killer writing tips I can use here on Storyfix in a pinch.  Or, when the day gets away from me and I’m too bushed to blog.

The good news today is that this little tip can definitely take your story to the next level.  And it’s not remotely “entry level,” either, this is graduate level stuff today.  Or, you might say, in a pinch.

The bad news — not really so bad — is that it might cost you ten bucks.  Because when you see the depth I go into with these tips, you may want to wrap your writerly head around the rest of them. 

Did I just say ten bucks?  That’s right… for a limited time I’ve cut the price of the eBook in half.  Read on, and if you like what you see, there’s a link at the end where you can check it out.  And you can read a major review HERE.

Tip #71 — Make your sub-plot about character arc.

Agents and editors love character arc.  Which means we need to love it, too.

Character arc is absolutely fundamental to story success.  It’ s not only how the character learns and grows as a result of their experiences within the story, but how they apply that learning toward their role as the primary catalyst in bringing about the conclusion of the story.

If the hero has something to learn at the beginning of the story (which should be the case), if they demonstrate (or hide) shortcomings and faults that are constantly separating them from what they need and want to achieve, chances are those are the consequences of having some inner demon that influences their decisions and actions. 

Where that inner demon comes from is backstory.

How the character overcomes it is character arc.

Creating a storyline that is subordinate but related to the main plotline that centers on the character’s inner demon is great fodder for a sub-plot.  And when it does, it can quickly become both sub-plot and sub-text.

That’s two different sub sandwiches on the story menu, and as the chef, you need to grill them up strategically.

If the story is a thriller, for example, the sub-plot can concern the character’s ability to commit to something or someone in the face of the pressures of impending life or death.  A love angle.   The risk of them making decisions from that context, both relative to the primary and sub plots, becomes sub-text.

If the story is already a love story, the sub-plot might concern a career or a specific goal or problem other than the one that clobbers everybody at Plot Point One.  For example, one of the families might bring class prejudice to bear upon their relationships, interfering with the main lovestory plotline.  The sub-plot of Titanic, for example, was the forbidden love story, the sub-text was the class struggle that defined every relationship on board.

And in case you didn’t see it or haven’t heard, the main plot had something to do with the ship.

Sub-plot follows the same basic story architecture and flow as the primary plot. 

But it’s much simpler and less obvious, and when it manifests in the form of limiting the character’s choices and influencing behaviors, it successfully links to the main storyline.

For example, a character’s inner demon could easily influence their response to the arrival of the story’s primary conflict at Plot Point Point One.  In fact, is absolutely should.

Sometimes — and this is cool — the sub-plot can evolve into a story milestone that influences the main plotline, often at Plot Point Two.  That’s advanced story architecture, folks, but if it gets your mind going give it a shot.

Sometimes the sub-plot can be completely separate.  In that case, character arc needs to be demonstrated across bothplotlines, the more behaviorally intertwined the better.

Examples, please.

In the hit (and hip) television show Burn Notice, for example, Michael Weston is constantly working to uncover who burned him – basically making him persona-non-grata within his profession as a spy – while addressing the plot-of-the-day, which is always a save-the-innocent scenario that gets wrapped up after 58 minutes less commercials. 

The main plot is how Michael solves the case of the day.  The sub-plot is his love relationship with Fi, his trigger-happy sidekick, and/or whether the local police will stop him before he nails the bad guys.  The sub-text is his on-going status as having been burned as a spy for some unnamed government agency, which at the end of the day is the primary plot of the series itself.

It’s easy to conclude that you have many options here.  A full blown matrix of them, in fact, with three variables — plot, sub-plot and sub-text — all in simultaneous play.

By the way… if you’re a pantser, good luck with this.  The reality of good story telling will turn you into a story planner sooner or later.  Sooner if you want to write something that will sell. 

Sub-plot is a dramatic question that is answered over the course of the story: will they fall in love, will she get the job, will they be disinherited, will they live or die, will they have sex before the ship sinks, etc.  Sub-text is the existence of some social, psychological or economic or other situational pressure that defines and influences the characters, such as social class, politics, career factors, etc.

The sub-plot of The Cider House Rulesis Toby Maguire’s ability to connect to Charlize Theron romantically.  (Which in this author’s opinion should be a no-brainer, but that’s just me.)  Will they or won’t they?  Stay tuned as the main plotline unfolds.  The sub-text of the story is the ever-present issue of right to life and abortion, and the pressures it puts on the characters.

In Top Gun, the sub-plot was Tom Cruise’s budding relationship with flight instructor Kelly McGillis.  Again, stay tuned.  That main plot – admittedly weak – was some conglomeration of whether Cruise would wash out (this being the link between the main plot and the sub-text) before he could save the day from an impending attack by bad guys with names like Chekov, which is the main plotline (if you seen it, you know that’s being generous). 

The sub-text, however, wasn’t really a question at all, but an influencing pressure: Cruise lived under the dark shadow of a disgraced military father, and it had pushed him toward irresponsibility and bravado.

The tip here is to understand the differences between plot, sub-plot and sub-text, and then master them all.  When you do, you have everything in place to make your hero’s arc both bold and profound.

CLICK HERE if you’d like a copy of 101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters sent immediately to your inbox.  You can be reading the whole thing in less than two minutes.

CLICK HERE if you’d like to read a review by Carolyn Howard Johnson, a major writing guru and instructor at UCLA.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

8 Responses to Tip #71 — Make your sub-plot about character arc.

  1. I’ve just discovered your site and have been climbing all over it for two days, attempting to absorb as much as I can. How did you fly under my radar for so long?

    This concept slapped me upside the head with its profundity. I’ve elevated you to the status of Worshipful Icon in my pantheon. How delightful to discover I did in my current WIP exactly what you advise — without a conscious clue what I was doing. The merger just “felt” right at the second Plot Point.

    Thank you for explaining my subconscious to me. Now that I know what my muse is up to behind my back, perhaps I’ll learn to dissect her ramblings more frequently. 🙂

  2. I’ve heard so many say it isn’t necesary to do this. To give the characters (especially the main character) a back story. I mean come on…. what makes you ..you are the things that have happened (good and bad) to you in your past and the way in which you chose to deal with them. It’s the same with creating a character and the better you understand him or her the better you make the story.
    Plot-sub plot- sub text= awesome as always Larry

  3. Pingback: Scene List Complete « Steven K. Griffin

  4. karen

    I was actually looking for some help for teaching my fifth grader, we are new to home schooling this year. We are not interested in standard book reports. My children are avid readers so I want them to really explore and understand not just report a summary. I thought let’s learn about characters and plot. This is great! The example of Burn Notice is perfect it is his favorite show. The examples really clarify and I like the diversity of genres for the examples. My husband and I both have aspirations as writers so we will be back to spend some time educating ourselves here.

  5. @Karen — welcome, very glad to have you here. There’s lots to discover in the archives… I recommend the 10-part story structure series, which appeared in August of 09 (and was the basis for the ebook, “Story Structure – Demystified”). Let me know how I can help! L.

    • Did I really write “hear” when I meant “here”? It’s late, that’s my only excuse. Sorry, it’s fixed on the site but you may have received that embarrassing mistake in the email version. L.

  6. Pingback: Start Your Week Off Write: How Star Trek Can Teach You About Character Arcs | kristin nador writes anywhere

  7. Hi Larry,

    Thanks for such a useful post!

    Personally, I’ve always struggled with ‘sub plots’ and ‘backstory’ in my novels because I’m always afraid I’m trying to do too much within the one work (if that makes sense). It’s very difficult to determine how much ‘back story’ to reveal to your readers – you don’t want to bore them, but you also need them to know enough to care about what happens to your characters.

    What I’ve tended to do of late is make ‘character profiles’ which one of my friends writes about here: http://www.writersedit.com/resources-for-writers/4-tips-writing-round-characters/. Basically it’s like interviewing your characters. You have all this information in mind and you choose when and if to reveal it.

    Thanks again for this post, I’ll be trawling through the rest of your site soon enough!