Everyone knows about structure. It’s what all the books and gurus talk about and pretty much what all writers and bloggers obsess over. The three-act template. Four act structure. The five act epic. Inciting incident. End of act turning point. Mid-point of act two. End of act two reversal. Twist, resolution, end. Great. Marvellous.
Inherent to this structure is the use of subplots and secondary characters that support the main story line on its quest to the finish line. In the spec pile, these subplots and secondary characters are usually predictable and two-dimensional inclusions to conveniently prop the protagonist’s goal. In some scripts and genres, this is perfectly acceptable but often it’s the fine line between ‘genre expectation’ and ‘familiar cliché’ (the comedy sidekick, the hissable villain).
To avoid the familiar cliché aspect, it is useful to assign subplots and secondary characters with their own particular structure and specific detail. This helps them stand out from the crowd and support the main story line in a more complete and thematic manner. The spec pile is rife with subplots and secondary characters that don’t go anywhere or appear infrequently or make a flat contribution. With specific structure and attention to detail, the subplots can breathe life into a story, add depth to the characters and provide drama/humour before coming to a resolution of its own that is separate to the main story strand.
Too often, subplots and secondary characters are treated with contrivance or convenience, as if they only exist to serve the protagonist and his solipsistic story. It’s not that difficult to improve a subplot or give it added value. All that is required is that the subplot is broken down into a detailed structure to match the painstaking beats that have been bashed out for the main story line.
In a separate document or piece of paper, write the subplot out as a stand-alone story. If the main story line is included in this in some way, that’s fine, write it in, but the focus is on the subplot. That’s the main attraction for this exercise. Now, the question is: does the story (the subplot) go through enough peaks and troughs, sufficient twist and turns, and an adequate structure of its own that truly adds dramatic value to the overall screenplay?
Then, put them in. Make it a priority. If these subplots and secondary characters really existed, then they would think that their story was more important, and more real, than whoever the writer has chosen as the hero. By giving the subplot a valued credence of respect and priority, it’s immediately going to add another depth and dimension to the proceedings. It’s going to spark off the main story line with more weight and assurance, and ensure a more compelling read for the hapless exec who’s got ten more scripts left on his desk.
Subplots and secondary characters: treat them with the same care and esteem as the main character and they’ll reward you and the reader with an entertaining story that is fully-rounded and impressive, leading the way for a ‘consider’ on the coverage.