Writing the subplot of a screenplay

Imagine the main goal of the hero in your script was to find love. There are 2 main characters who experience sexual chemistry, decide to make a go at a relationship. They eventually get engaged and marry. This is a rather thin plot as there is nothing to give the screenplay substance. Nothing here compliments, contradicts or defines the characters’ driving forces. This is where the subplot comes in.

Definition of a Subplot in a Play

The subplot is an annexing story that runs alongside the main story. In the earlier example, the subplot may serve the love story in that it can be used to inform or illustrate something about the relationship. The female heroine may have a powerful father who opposes the union. Some tense scenes between the two could make the marriage appear in peril and the audience to care about what happens next. The male hero may harbor a dark past involving a divorcee. Scenes that inform on both characters’ motives and backgrounds could make the marriage story more interesting.

What the Subplot Should Do

However, be careful of using too many subplots, as this could overcomplicate the screenplay and rob it of focus. Include only what is necessary. A full length film might have 3 – 5 subplots; a short play might have only 1 or .2 A serial might have more as there is ‘room’ to explore the characters’ past lives and backgrounds.

Great Subplots for a Play

Include the subplot only if it serves a purpose for the main story. It should do one or more of the following:

The subplot may complicate the main story. Perhaps the main character discovers he has inherited huge debts from a deceased gambling brother which could stand in the sway of his objective. He must find money fast before the big day. Such a ‘hitch’ will complicate the main story.

The subplot may go against the objective of the character(s). Perhaps a past lover wants to stop the wedding or blackmail the hero with a shameful secret that could jeopardize the wedding.

The subplot may enhance the characters’ chances of achieving their goal(s). Perhaps the hero has an uncle who happens to be a solicitor and knows a way of getting his nephew released from the debt.



Scriptwriting Plotlines

The subplot comprises a series of scenes that inform or highlight something about the main story and the characters. These scenes must affect the main story in some way. If they don’t, the scenes should be cut. Some subplots comprise merely two or three scenes in a whole movie. Others have almost equal weight to the main story. If you find the subplot starts to overpower the main story, consider cutting it altogether and saving the idea for a separate screenplay.

How to Write Scenes for a Subplot

The writer should always keep in mind the main story when writing scenes for a subplot. Ideally, the subplot should form a seamless part of the main story rather as separate entities. The script should flow smoothly between the main story and the subplots without jarring. The story should also be easy for the audience to follow; not too complicated or cluttered. Be careful of over-informing the story. Let the audience work some things out for themselves. This is the purpose of subtext. It is what is implied that can create a compelling story.

Great Screenplay Writing

The subplot may impact upon the main story in other ways. It may inform on the characters(s) and how one relates with another. The subplot may also impede or advance the main story. It should never be ‘neutral’ or have no effect. And most importantly, it should affect the climax of the story.

Great Plot Ideas for a Screenplay

Subplots add meat to the screenplay. Without any subplots, the story would be as thin as watered-down soup. Subplots are little stories that run in parallel with the main story. The subplot can be big or small; they may inform on the characters or a situation in several ways. Short plays have room for just 1 subplot or so; full length screenplay may possess around 3 – 5. The subplot should always stake a claim on the main story in that it is inter-connected with the main story. Make sure it complicates, helps or impedes the character(s) goals. Ultimately, all subplots should impact upon the story resolution.
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