Monday, August 21, 2006

Subplots & Secondary Characters

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.


Andy Phillips said...

I agree completely. Also, thinking through the supporting characters and their subplots will reveal holes in the main plot, because it must be able to stand up against the determined actions of someone bent on having it come out otherwise. If it can't, you have a hole.

Stephen Gallagher said...

Can I add a rider? In subplotting it's OK to have key events happening offscreen if they're important to the secondary characters but only indirectly relevant to our protagonists.

Anonymous said...

Hi Danny,
Sorry - know this is off the thread, but if you get a chance, any ideas how to deal with this....?
In plot heavy mysteries, eg Angel Heart, Memento (perhaps poor examples, because they work nonetheless) there is often a need to end with this massive flourish of exposition, usually coming from the bad guy, as the protagonist is told all the bits he didnt know. The 'big twist' is usually in there somewhere. The good guy sort of stands there going 'what the fuck--' or 'No!' every now and again, and little flashbacks crop up, and... there must be a better way to do this.
Obviously, this is 'telling' not 'showing' but by this point in the story, it seems like telling becomes the only option... any ideas?

Lucy V said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Danny Stack said...

Hi Anonymous

The big 'reveal' at the end of a mystery or thriller is exposition but usually an effective revelation because we (the audience) have been on tenterhooks...

It's a technique that works if all the clues and red herrings add up in a satisfactory fashion (The Usual Suspects e.g.) but if the writer's just making up stuff or introducing new elements just to make the 'sting' work, then that's probably best avoided.

A visual revelation is usually better than a lot of talky explanation (ref: Usual Suspects again) but I never thought about the technique much until you mentioned it, so I don't have any reservations per se... just make it work!

Anonymous said...

Thank you sir.