Tuesday, July 24, 2007

What is a subplot anyway?

I'm working on a new play and I'm considering including a sub-plot. Except I don't know what a sub plot is.

Having never tried to implement one, I've though of a sub-plot as some sort of secondary storyline that somehow parallels or comments on the main plot. But as I've started conceiving the structure of my newest play, I'm finding that definition doesn't help me in practice.

I apologize for the obtuseness that's about to follow, but because the new play is being targeted at a specific theater, I don't want to get into public details at this time.

So - I have a protagonist, and I've articulated his main goal for myself. I've set up a likely antagonist who provides an obstacle to that goal. And then I realized I had left a character out of this central push-pull. This third character causes the death of the protagonist's father, and is central to a major theme of the play.

My carefully constructed framework began to crumble before my very eyes. If I included this third character in the antag/protag conflict, I would water down my central dramatic question. But I don't want to give up this third character and his themes!

So I thought: subplot.

I'm focusing now on the "plot" in subplot. Rather than being a secondary consideration of the protagonist, the subplot will have its own sub-antagonist and sub-protagonist. There will be points of intersection where the plots complicate each other, and a catastrophic intersection (the death of the main-protag's father).

I think the play will look something like this:

Notice I'm thinking here of plot as generated by the push-pull of the protag/antag pair.

My attempt at sub-plot raises further questions for me. What's the difference between a plot/subplot structure and a multi-plot structure like Crash or Arcadia? What's the difference between plot/subplot and a structure where there are secondary protagonist concerns? For example, pick any action movie where the hero has to save the world and also is marriage is falling apart.

I think I'm going to re-read King Lear and look at that plot structure. How are other (living!) writers working on subplots?


Amy said...

It's so interesting that you pose this question -- my 12 year-old daughter (who has thankfully graduated from Disney to Hitchcock in the course of a week) recently said to me "I like movies and plays with more than one story going on -- it's a lot more like life and a lot more interesting."

I think including subplots makes a piece more lifelike -- very rarely are events isolated and focused on a single issue - life is messy and subplots make more mess.

I think a subplot is different than a multi-plot approach in that a subplot is more interwoven with the plot or the characters cross over (the protagonist in the main plot can be the antagonist in the subplot, etc.)

Subplots are a great tool -- you can echo your message by a parallel arc to both the plot and subplot. Or they can make a poignant statement in their contrasting arc. (the protagonist ends up pennyless and bitter while the sub-protagonist becomes well-off and happy, etc.)

I have done a ton of musical comedy, so a subplot can be crucial for the "lighter" or "novelty" songs or moments in a show. (Think Ado Annie vs. Laurey in Oklahoma -- Laurey has to carry the big love songs "People Will Say We're in Love" while Ado Annie gets to rip it up with "I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say No!")

But I think my daughter summed it up for me, it's more interesting to follow two stories!

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