A man is sitting at home with his wife and kids. His wife is cooking dinner but needs flour. So her husband and young daughter go to the grocery store to buy some. While they’re checking out at the cash register, two people come into the store waving guns around robbing the place. One robber is a man and the other is a woman. Everyone is terrified.
What happens next?
If you were going to finish the story or flesh out these characters, what would happen?
The people robbing the store…who are they? Are they a couple? Are they bad people? Is one of them the leader and the other one reluctant? Why are they robbing the bank? Are they in a bad financial situation? Are they being forced or blackmailed to rob the store?
We know that the man and his daughter are the protagonists that you’re rooting for - after all, the story is from their perspective. But villains have to have a reason for doing what they do, so make sure to establish their motives and personalities.
You also have to flesh out the story a bit. A man and his daughter are caught up in a robbery at a grocery store. OK. That’s the main plot. But there has to be more. You will need some subplots to take place. What’s important, however, is that the subplots tie into the main plot of the robbery in some way.
What could you use as a subplot? Here are a few ideas.
*The store owner tries to be a hero and is shot by the robbers and is losing blood. He is now in dire need of an ambulance, thus creating more tension and a new problem for everyone involved.
*A pregnant woman in the store goes into labor during the robbery.
*One of the robbers turns on the other.
See how many directions we could take this story? You could use one or all of these subplots. Constantly ask yourself "What if?"
The robbery is obviously the main conflict but there has to be other conflicts within the bigger one. You want to keep the reader on the edge of their seat.
Alright. So. In my mystery crime thriller, Who Killed Joel Larson, the mystery of who killed Joel is obviously the main plot. We follow a depressed police detective named Maggie as she tries to solve the case. But there HAS to be more to the story here. One police detective trying to solve a murder case is simple and could be boring. So this is where the subplots kick in, and basically, I decided to make Maggie’s life a living hell. I put a lot of things in her way of solving the crime.
The subplots of Who Killed Joel Larson?
I’ll start easy. One of the themes of the book is mental illness. Joel Larson suffered from several, and Maggie suffers mentally from bipolar disorder. Unless you have a mental illness, you really don't know what it’s like. And in reading from Maggie’s perspective, you get a first-hand account of how her mental state affects her job, family and relationships. When she gets depressed, it can linger for months and it affects her self esteem greatly. Because of this, her job performance hasn’t been sufficient in a long time and she will be fired or demoted if she doesn’t solve the Joel Larson murder.
OK, so we have a bipolar detective trying to solve a murder. What did I create for subplots?
Subplot #1: Maggie’s daughter disappears from school.
Like I said, I wanted to make Maggie’s life a living hell. What’s the worst nightmare of any parent? Losing their child. Maggie’s adopted daughter Mallory went missing and this brings out a new anguished, desperate side of Maggie’s personality. I could have stopped there. I could have just had Maggie struggling with bipolar and get sidetracked from the Joel Larson case by her daughter’s disappearance. But nope! I was just getting started.
Subplot #2: Terrorists target the protagonist.
This is a novel, so a bipolar detective searching for her daughter and trying to solve a murder mystery isn’t enough to fill the pages. Another thing Maggie has to watch out for is a group of terrorists called The Jaspers. The group disbanded years ago but have begun killing again and make it public that Maggie and her gruff boss, Commissioner Mickey, are next on their hit list. So in addition to solving Joel’s murder and looking for her daughter, Maggie has to watch her back against the Jaspers, who can attack her at any time.
Subplot #3: Maggie’s ex-boyfriend (a ruthless journalist) is out to solve Joel’s murder first and publicly humilates her.
As if Maggie didn’t have enough problems! Her ex-boyfriend (Lamont Jackson) became a famous journalist several years ago after they broke up. He never got over her. When he starts interviewing people to solve Joel’s murder, people are far more willing to talk to him than Maggie. To twist the knife, he exposes a bad secret from Maggie’s past - that she accidentally ran over a five year-old black child when she was a teenager. In the era of Black Lives Matter, Maggie’s reputation takes a huge hit.
OK. So there are a total of four plots in this novel including the main one. Some of these arcs are resolved quickly, but others linger on for far longer. For example, Lamont Jackson greatly antagonizes Maggie but it isn’t too long before the two reconcile at the funeral of a mutual friend. They decide to work together to solve Joel’s murder, and Lamont also wishes to help Maggie locate her lost daughter. Shortly after their newfound partnership begins, PLOT TWIST! Lamont mysteriously dies of a drug overdose, something that Maggie immeidieatly suspects is fishy.
By contrast, the disappearance of Maggie’s daughter Mallory lingers on for a much longer length of time. Maggie already suffers from anxiety and depression, so the longer her daughter is gone, the worse she feels.
Great Subplots In Popular Films
You know a subplot is a good one when you could easily use it as the main story. Two of my favorite subplots are in films such as Batman Returns and The Lion King.
In The Lion King, Simba meets Timon and Pumba right after the story’s darkest moments. This leads into a subplot of Simba embracing Hakuna Matata. In fact, Simba’s journey with Timon and Pumba is so entertaining that an entire film based on them would be exciting! (Apparently Disney agreed with me, because they produced Lion King 1 ½, which is the story told from Timon and Pumba’s perspective). Long story short, Timon and Pumba become the heart of The Lion King and provide a great subplot that eventually reroutes itself into the main one, as Simba’s new friends accompany him to battle Scar and the Hyenas during the film’s climax.
In another blog, I briefly touched upon Batman Returns. I noted how Catwoman’s character arc was done so well that, if edited a certain way, Catwoman could be the film’s hero while Batman and Max Shrek would be the villains. Catwoman’s journey is a great subplot; we watch her go from being a shy, lonely secretary to becoming a sexy vigilante.
While Penguin and Max Shrek are the true villains of the story, Catwoman is in a gray area. She wants revenge on Max Shrek for “killing her,” but aside from that, she isn’t interested in doing harm to anyone else. She’s more interested in seducing Batman than killing him, is disgusted when The Penguin kills the Ice Princess, and even saved a woman who was being mugged in an alley. If the film was re-shot entirely from her perspective, Shrek wouldn't change as her antagonist, but Batman would also be a villain for trying to stop her revenge quest, and the Penguin likely be a thorn in her side as well, especially after he betrayed her.
Any of the subplots in Who Killed Joel Larson could stand alone as its own story. For example, one character lost his wife to a disease and his young son is dying from the same illness. Desperate to save his son, he becomes the hitman for a crime boss to get the money to treat him. The story of a desperate anti-villain like this could easily be its own story, but it’s a subplot in mine.
But remember that not every subplot that you write should be able to stand on its own as an independent story. Sometimes a minor subplot going on in the background can pay off huge!
An example of this happens in Ghostbusters. Early in the movie, Peter Venkman does his damnest to win over Dana Barrett. Midway through the film, however, this subplot is somewhat left hanging until Dana is later possessed by Gozer, which ties her into the story’s main plot and climax. The Peter/Dana romance could not serve as its own story. However, Dana serves as a brilliant plot device - the woman Peter failed to woo early in the film becomes possessed by the film's supernatural antagonist, giving Peter his own personal motivations to save the day.
I didn't realize this until writing this, but The Simpsons Movie is padded with subplots everywhere and it works well to round out the story. In addition to EPA trying to bomb Springfield and Homer undergoing a redemption arc, the following subplots occur:
*Homer adopts a pig.
*Bart feels appreciated by Flanders
*Lisa has a love interest
The Simpsons writers struggled for years to write a screenplay worthy of being a feature film. So they took the same approach I did with my novel - they fleshed out the story with subplots. Like in my novel, some of their subplots were minor but others were not.