The main plot gets lots of attention, but what about subplots? The top movies and best-selling novels weave into the main plot several subplots. I’ll break down the process and share 7 tips for structuring plot and subplots.
What is Plot?
The main plot is a thread of crucial events that comprise the narrative of what occurs within the story, forcing characters into conflicts. Likewise, a subplot interjects more events and characters, amplifying the main plot.
Visible and Invisible Storylines
In Sara Rosetta’s How to Write a Series and How to Outline a Cozy Mystery, she refers to plots and subplots as layers of the visible (on the surface) and invisible (under the surface) storylines. Together, they engage readers.
Mystery Plot and Subplots
Nina Harrington suggested in How to Write a Cozy Mystery the following plot and subplots:
- Main Plot (e.g., the murder)
- Secondary Character Subplot (e.g., the sidekick or mentor)
- Community Conflict Subplot (e.g., people conflicts)
- Sleuth’s Character Arc Subplot (e.g., main character’s flaws)
- Setting and Storyworld Subplot (e.g., unique setting, characters)
The subplots are woven around the main plot, setting up value reversals as the story progresses.
Toy Story 3 Plots and Subplots
In Michael Arndt’s video about editing the Midpoint of Toy Story 3, he identified seven different story threads (i.e., the main plot and six subplots):
- As Andy prepares for college (main plot), he puts Woody in box marked for his dorm and places the other toys in a black plastic sack for storage in the attic.
- Andy’s mom mistakenly puts the sack filled with toys out for garbage collection, and the Toys need a new home.
- When the Toys arrive at their new home, they meet friendly Lotso Bear.
- With Woody gone, Buzz Lightyear becomes the new leader of Toys.
- At Sunnyside, Barbie falls in love with Ken.
- Based on first impressions, Sunnyside seems like the perfect new home for Toys.
- Woody thinks the Toys are in a good place and leaves to go with Andy.
According to Arndt, even though the threads start at different points in the story, all values change at the Midpoint.
To avoid getting caught up in the intricacies of plot and subplots, Arndt recommended zooming out and looking at the big picture to determine the Midpoint value switch for each story thread.
He also emphasized prioritizing the reversal of values so that there are no lulls in the story and all shifts occur within the shortest possible span of story. Arndt prioritized the order of showing the reversals from the shortest to the lengthiest change (i.e., Woody’s value shift).
Applying the Lessons from Arndt and Harrington
In my current murder mystery, I’ve settled on one main plot and four subplots within the structure of the Global Story Beats:
- Murder (Main Plot): Amateur sleuth strives to identify the killer and bring to justice, showcasing a clever puzzle for readers to solve.
- Starting Value: Resists the call to sleuth
- Midpoint Shift: Embraces the call to sleuth
- Sidekick (Subplot 1): Best friend serves as friendly ear but a poor guide for change.
- Starting Value: Feeds Sleuth’s fears (friend has troubled past)
- Midpoint Shift: Boosts Sleuth’s courage
- Community Conflict (Subplot 2): The town’s police chief gives sleuth mixed signals.
- Starting Value: Encourages sleuth to bring forth clues
- Midpoint Shift: Orders sleuth to stop her investigation
- Sleuth’s Character Arc (Subplot 3): Sleuth and husband moved to the idyllic small town to pursue her dream retirement activity.
- Starting Value: Fear (flaw) hinders her call to sleuth
- Midpoint Shift: Courage inspires acceptance of her calling
- Setting and World (Subplot 4): The small town and storyworld descriptions and events make readers want to learn more.
- Starting Value: The setting and people seem idyllic
- Midpoint Shift: The location and characters take on darker tones.
Wrapping up 7 Tips for Structuring Plot and Subplots
In this wrap-up, here’s my take on the essential advice from Michael Arndt, Nina Harrington, and Sara Rosetta:
- Define the plot and subplots.
- Clarify the starting values and the Midpoint changes.
- Increase the stakes.
- Shift the main character’s value from want to need at Midpoint.
- Introduce new obstacles to align with changed values.
- Show the Midpoint reversals in priority order to avoid story lulls.
- Tick and tie story’s beginning and ending to resolve all loose ends.
And here’s how I create and keep track of story threads:
- Build individual Story Spines for each story thread (i.e., the main plot and all of the subplots).
- Label and color code scenes for each story thread. For example, you can use a spreadsheet or Scrivener’s Keywords to track each story thread.