15 Tips for Creating Effective Subplots for Your Screenplay Story

1. Connect the subplot to the main plot line.
A screenplay’s plot and subplots should be connected, with the subplots intersecting the main plot line. Without a connection to the main storyline, the subplot(s) will leave the audience wondering why they are in the film. They will feel misplaced and unnecessary.

2. Structure your subplots like a mini-story.
Each subplot has a beginning, middle, and end, with clear turning points and a resolution – often closely following the timeline of the main plot.

3. Ensure your subplot has a purpose.
Subplots should affect the “A” story line and move the plot forward. Think of subplots as having an agenda or goal to achieve.

4. Don’t incorporate too many subplots.
Most films have two to three subplots. Too many subplots can take the reader’s focus off the “A” storyline and cause the narrative to become convoluted.

5. Use the subplots to expand or open up the theme.
Well-constructed subplots expand on the theme of the story – if the theme of your story is love then each subplot should reflect that throughline. In the film Moonstruck, the subplot of Loretta’s father and his mistress, the subplot involving Loretta’s mother and Perry, and the subplot of Cosmo and his wife all expand on the theme of “love”.

6. Use subplots to reveal aspects of the main character.
Subplots including “the love interest” or “the family conflict” can uncover the protagonist’s goals, desires, vulnerabilities, skills, and backstory.

7. Use subplots to show character transformation and change.
The protagonist doesn’t suddenly experience transformation, often a subplot is used to convey how and why the hero changes. In the film Back to the Future, Marty’s feelings about his parents change when he experiences them – via a subplot - as high-school teenagers in the 1950s.

8. Choose the subplot characters carefully.
Supporting characters who are involved in subplots usually have an emotional connection to the protagonist that evolves as the story intensifies.

9. When possible, place much of the subplots’ storylines in Act 2.
By incorporating most of the subplot storytelling in Act Two, subplots can be used to alleviate many of the challenges of the Second Act.

10. Use subplots to add complications.
In the film Changeling each subplot adds another layer of conflict. The main plot involves a mother trying to find her missing child, when the police locate a child and erroneously present him as the woman’s son [subplot] complications ensue, when the woman attempts to go up against the police department she is committed to a mental institution [subplot] and more complications ensue, etc. Well-crafted subplots can be especially beneficial in adding dimension and layers to a predictable storyline, such as in rom-coms, comedies, and horror stories.

5 Tips to Analyze Your Subplot(s)
  1. Separate each subplot from the main plot to examine and clarify structure – does each subplot have a set-up, turning points, and a resolution?
  1. How many subplots have you created? If there are more than four, can some be eliminated to clarify the storyline?
  1. How does each subplot develop the story?
  1. Does each subplot have a purpose? (reveal character, add complications, expand the theme….)
  1. Do the subplots intersect the main plot? If not, how can you revise the subplot(s) to connect to the main plot?