Today I’d like to talk about something that puzzled me no end when I first began writing: subplots. I’ve been reading Robert McKee’s book, “Story” and what follows draws liberally from his insights.
The Shifting Sands of Terminology
Subplots, main subplots, main plots, central plots, minor arcs, major arcs, and so on. As I’ve read about writing over the years each of these terms has been pressed into service to describe the interwoven threads of a story.
The idea that I came away with—and it’s not at all a bad way of looking at it—is that a novel length story isn’t composed of just one plot but many. One of these plots will form the spine of the story and the other plots, the subplots, are woven around the spine, strengthening it, giving it depth and complexity.
The plot that forms the spine of the story, let’s call this the central plot, this plot line involves the main character’s pursuit of her goal, the obstacles she has to overcome, the cost of winning/failing as well as the final outcome.
But not all stories have subplots. There are good stories—heck, great stories!—that don’t have subplots. “The Fugitive” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” for example.
So, what’s the deal? Do we need subplots? If so, why? What do they do? What’s their function in a story?
Subplots are a tool—one of them—that will help get a writer through the Great Swampy Middle of Despair.
Everyone who has struggled through a first draft is intimately acquainted with what Jim Butcher calls The Great Swampy Middle (GSM). Let me, first, talk about what the GSM is and why it exists, then I’ll discuss how subplots are a solution to this problem.
Why the Great Swampy Middle Exists
I’ve often written about the three act structure and in those posts tend to make it seem as though the following is how a story is divided up into three acts.
Act One: The first 25% of the story.
Act Two: The middle 50% of the story.
Act Three: The last 25% of the story.
But as was the case in “Star Wars: A New Hope,” the third act can be—and often is—much shorter than the first one. McKay writes in “Story”:
“In the ideal last act we want to give the audience a sense of acceleration, a swiftly rising action to Climax. If the writer tries to stretch out the last act, the pace of acceleration is almost certain to slow in mid-movement. So last acts are generally brief, twenty minutes or less.”
As McKee says, in reality a story often breaks down as follows:
Act One: The first 25% of the story.
Act Two: The middle 60% of the story.
Act Three: The last 15% of the story.
Act Two bulges out from between acts one and two like a grotesque muffin top. With sixty percent of the action of the story unfolding in the second act it’s easy to get bogged down here. And that gives birth to the Great Swampy Middle of Despair.
Subplots are one of the tools we can use to firm up this flabby middle part.
How To Defeat The Great Swampy Middle
Robert McKee in “Story” writes that there are two things that will help us get through the GSM. They are:
1. Use subplots.
McKay writes that “Subplots have their own act structure, although usually brief.” As an example, McKay weaves three subplots into a hypothetical central plot with each subplot peeking at a different time.
Let’s break this down.
a. Subplots increase the number of major scenes.
By weaving subplots around the central plot we can have an interesting reversal every chapter or so. Although not every subplot will have four major scenes—an Inciting Incident and three Act Climaxes—there will be enough so that an interesting event happens regularly enough to keep a readers attention.
b. Subplots give a story depth by giving it layers of complexity.
For example, think of “A Midsummer Nights Dream.” All the love stories end happily but some end “sweetly, some farcically, some sublimely.”
c. One of the subplots (often the most developed subplot) can contrast the theme of the main plot, giving the story a depth and interest it would otherwise lack.
For example, the central idea or theme of a story could be about True Love, what it is and how it affects those in its merciless grip. The main plot could revolve around the protagonist and his search for, and finding of, true love. As a counterpoint to this, one could have a subplot about two people who think they’re in love but who really aren’t. They say and do all the right things but, in the end, when their love is tested it fails. They cannot—will not—sacrifice everything for the other.
Then we see the aftermath. What one couple gains and the other looses. This gives the theme a depth it would have lacked had only one aspect of the central idea been explored.
d. Each complication in a subplot affects the central plot.
In “The Matrix” Cypher betrays Morpheus to The Agents. This was a victory for Cypher; it got him closer to his goal of once again being submerged in The Matrix. This same event was, obviously, a major blow to Neo. So here we see how a major scene in a subplot creates conflict/tension in the main plot and, as a result, drives the story forward.
2. Increase the number of acts.
The second way to defeat the Great Swampy Middle of Despair is to increase the number of acts. You will have noticed that many stories—especially action-packed stories—don’t have subplots. They don’t need them. The audience wants a fast paced story and with a major reversal coming every few minutes that’s what they’re going to get.
The movie “Four Weddings and a Funeral” had five acts and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” had—hold onto your hat—seven! Which, as McKee points out, means there was “a major reversal every fifteen or twenty minutes.”
The downside of this is obvious: the pace can be exhausting! Both for the writer(s) and the audience. Each reversal, each climax, must outdo the one before. And that’s difficult to do. It’s easy to resort to cliches or to dangle the hero off the edge of a cliff one too many times and stretch the audiences/readers suspension of disbelief to the breaking point.
Sameness—even when it’s a stunning explosion-filled end-of-act climax—gets old fast.
Okay, that’s enough for today. Now go write something just for the sheer pleasure of it. (grin)
Talk to you tomorrow. Cheers!Photo credit: "fields of gold" by Helmut Hess under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0.