I read a script for a client recently that had a lot of good things going for it. I enjoyed the story, I liked the characters and the dialogue was snappy, witty and smart. And yet, something was bothering me the entire time I was reading it. What bothered me even more was that I couldn’t put my finger on what was bugging me. Something just seemed off. So I gave the script a second read, and I realized that I never new what the main characters main goal in the story was. There were no fewer than three things the main character was trying to do, and the writer gave all three goals equal importance within the storyline. One of the things that I provide when I give coverage is a logline, and it was very difficult coming up with a logline for this script because I honestly didn’t know what the story was about, at least targeted to the point where I could get it into a logline.
I suggested that that the writer rank the plotlines in order of importance and then structure the story so that the other plotlines were reduced in the storyline to reflect their importance to the main character’s growth. The problem with each subplot carrying equal weight, particularly in this screenplay, was that not only did I not know what the story was really about, but the entire screenplay was turned into a disorganized mess in which it was initially difficult to even determine what was wrong with it.
With that in mind, here are three issues that I’ve noticed over the years where writers misuse the subplot.
Think about The Raiders of the Lost Ark. There is a clear main plot and a clear subplot in that film. The main goal for Indiana Jones is to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do. His secondary goal is to reconcile his relationship with Marion. There is a point in Raiders where those two goals are put directly into conflict. Marion has been captured by the Nazis and Indy stumbles across her tent just after he discovers the Ark’s location. She fully and rightly expects him to rescue her, and he’s about to cut her loose when he realizes that by rescuing her, the soldiers will start combing the camp looking for her and make it impossible to get the Ark. He has a choice to make, and he knows that whichever one he doesn’t choose could potentially be lost to him forever. Understand that conflict is the mother of drama, and you should look to create it wherever you can to make your screenplay is dramatic as possible.
This is especially true for new writers. It can be really challenging to keep track of everything going on in one plot, let alone a sub plot or two. But here’s the thing that you have to remember: subplots provide depth to your story. Especially when you think of the point that I made above in terms of having subplots working in conflict against each other, you need to have some sort of subplot to fill out the rest of the story. Another issue is that if you insert a subplot, but underutilized it, that can be even worse than no subplot at all. The example that comes to mind first is from Bad Moms. That film has a couple of subplots, and one of them has to do with the main character Amy (Mila Kunis) falling in love with a local good-looking single dad, Jesse. I felt like they could have given us one or two more scenes in order to maximize the emotional investment that we would have needed to really be engaged with that idea. So it is definitely a fine line between not having enough subplot and…
Like the problem I mentioned above, you have to remember that a subplot is there to compliment your story, not take over your story. Your main plot is the driver of your story and the subplot is there to fill in some blanks and add depth, and hopefully some conflict. If you find that your subplot is taking up more than five or six scenes, you’re probably spending too much time on it.
If you have a script that you’re working on and you’re having a hard time managing the subplots, let us evaluate it for you and help you get the most out of the subplots a well as the rest of the script.