Question: How many subplots should I have and how do I make them work with the overall story?
A man can’t live on ‘A’ storylines alone – and neither can your scripts. If you’re not crafting and interweaving compelling subplots and B stories into your script, your story will probably feel flat and won’t sustain for 100 minutes.
Your subplots and B stories are what add new dimensions to your script and flesh out your concept and story. Most stories have at least 2 or 3 subplots, and can have more. But you don’t want them to take AWAY from the main storyline, only add to it!
The first 8-10 pages of your second act is where your main character will face their first major test or challenge and take the first step in their arc. But these pages are also where you should begin introducing and developing your subplots and B stories. Somewhere in pgs 30-40ish.
It’s a fuzzy area, but I actually think there are some differences between a B-STORY and a SUBPLOT. I think B stories usually still directly involve your main character, whereas subplots do not – at least not initially.
The B Story is your character’s secondary motivation or mission – the OTHER thing they have to accomplish. Your B Story may be a second problem or issue that your main character has to fix. And while your A-Story presents itself at the inciting incident and is solidified at the end of the first act with the acceptance of the adventure, your B-Story often can’t be identified UNTIL the second act begins, because it’s what is illuminated by the adventure beginning.
For example, in The Wizard of Oz – Dorothy’s A-Story is to find the Wizard and get home, but the B-Story becomes helping Oz and her new friends. She had no idea she was going to have to do that until the adventure began.
The B Story is often the more emotional thing, and not the visual, tangible, action-y thing. It’s connected to your concept – but is usually caused because of or caused by your concept. It’s what your hook or major storyline leads your characters to (or to do).
For example, in the political comedy Dave, the main storyline is Kevin Kline pretending to be the President and getting away with it while adapting to his very new life as the leader of the free world. But there are two B stories – or perhaps B and C story – the first is the love story with the First Lady. The second B story, perhaps the C story, is that Dave must get this bill passed to save children and cut the budget.
In my company’s own movie, Sydney White, the B story is how Amanda Bynes’s Sydney character affects and helps the “Dorks” characters. She’s still involved, so it’s not really a subplot. It’s a true secondary storyline.
Your B Story could be a love story for your main character (though in a straight romantic comedy, this would always be the A story). Very often, in action or disaster films, the B story is the love story, but it can be in any genre.
Some examples where the B story is the love story include Juno (love story with Michael Cera), Liar Liar (love story with Maura Tierney and winning his wife back is a second mission and motivation to overcoming the issue of not being able to lie), Twister, Armageddon, 2012, Die Hard, etc – all have B love stories.
In contrast, your subplots are basically a way for you to cut away from your main storylines and main characters and infuse different life and personality into your story. These subplots do NOT have to include your main characters, and probably shouldn’t. However, it usually does and SHOULD intersect and affect your major plotline at some point.
It could be your sidekick, best friend, mentor character or antagonist that you’ve introduced us to in the first act, now develops their own slightly separate storyline and goals. Or it could be a totally NEW character that you introduce here.
Your subplots actually can cause or lead to your turning points in your second act if they intersect well with your major storylines. For instance, in The Ref, the two subplots are the son’s storyline and the Drunken Santa storyline. They eventually intersect and affect the main storyline of Denis Leary and the parents, but they are separate.
In thrillers like Primal Fear, The Negotiator, or Long Kiss Goodnight, the subplots are the behind the scenes politics or overarching stories of corruption, dirty cops, revenge, business, etc. that affect and help drive the main action. In Primal Fear, there’s a real estate subplot that leads to discovery of clues that intersect with the main storyline, but it’s just a subplot and doesn’t directly involve the main characters.
Or the subplot could be the OTHER side of your love story. For example, in Six Days 7 Nights, the major storyline is Anne Heche and Harrison Ford’s love story developing as they try to get rescued, but the subplot is their respective boyfriends/girlfriends back on the mainland as they get closer.
Remember – much like your main ‘A’ storyline, your B stories and subplots should have a set up, a beginning, middle and end – they need a structure – and they need to be resolved. This is done usually by the end of your second act or middle of your third act – but it depends on how big and important the subplot is.
Your B story – your character’s secondary missions – they have to include obstacles just like the A story does. And your subplot MUST have conflict – or else it is not a subplot, it’s just filler! I’ll say that again – if your subplot has no conflict, it’s just filler.
The subplot must also connect with your story’s main theme. In fact, the subplot often drives home the theme even more specifically and obviously than your A storyline. Look at Crazy Stupid Love – had tons of storylines and subplots, but even the smaller subplots of Steve Carrell’s kid’s love life and the funny angry neighbors all added to, and brought out, the theme of the story.
If you have a true ensemble piece – meaning there is pretty equal screen time shared amongst 5-10 different characters, then you don’t need subplots because each of your characters will have their own storyline and those will be more than enough to use to cut away from whatever else is going on, and progress the story. Basically, your whole story is made up of subplots that tie into an overarching concept, story or theme. For example – Crash, Love Actually, New Year’s Eve, Traffic, etc. But keep in mind that many of these storylines should intersect in some way at some point just like your subplots would.
And if you have created a wonderful subplot on page 32 and introduced new characters, but then we don’t see them again until page 83, then you haven’t tracked that subplot well enough and it will not seem important enough to the story. After your major structural points or turning points, that’s usually a great time to cut away from your main characters and check back in with your subplots.
So as you develop your script, make sure you’re creating and tracking subplots and B stories that are just as compelling as your major storyline so that your concept, hook and theme truly shine.
Danny Manus is an in-demand script consultant and CEO of No BullScript Consulting, and author of “No B.S. for Screenwriters: Advice from the Executive Perspective.” Ranked one of the Top 15 “Cream of the Crop” script consultants in CS Magazine in 2010, he was previously the Director of Development for Clifford Werber Productions (Cinderella Story, Sydney White) and Sandstorm Films (The Covenant, 8MM2), which had a first look deal at Screen Gems. He is also attached to produce several projects independently, is a columnist for Business of Show Institute, and teaches seminars and workshops all across the country.