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The Main Plot and The Sub Plot

I see a lot of scripts that are what I call, King Lear Drafts. King Lear drafts are screenplays with essentially two main plots: for those of you who have not read King Lear (shame on you!), we follow the fates of – unsurprisingly – a King called Lear whom is arrogant and proud and casts his good daughter Cordelia out of his kingdom for speaking her mind, keeping his evil daughters Goneril and Regan who plot to bring about his downfall. Pretty stern stuff one might think, but oh no: Shakespeare is a little worried perhaps we might not “get” the magnitude of this family’s turmoil, so he mirrors Lear’s fate with The Duke of Gloucester’s. This other guy then has two sons: a good, legitmate son, Edgar and a bad, bastard son Edmund. Edmund, being evil (natch), arranges for Gloucester to believe that Edgar is making an attempt upon Gloucester’s life. Despite the fact Edgar has been good up to this point is immaterial; Gloucester immediately believes Edmund and – you guessed it – casts Edgar out into the wilderness like Lear does poor Cordelia.

Now, who am I to question the Great Shakespeare? I’m not. I love King Lear. I’ve seen it a whopping seven times in various theatres across London and on DVD countless times, with actors as diverse Corin Redgrave and Ian Holm in the title role. As a study of character, it cannot be beaten: King Lear’s metaphorical blindness is juxtaposed with Gloucester’s literal blindness when his eyes are gouged out by Regan’s evil husband The Duke of Cornwall is a fabulous touch. Lear’s wails of distress when he find’s Cordelia’s body after she and France try to save Lear’s kingdom despite his abandonment, “Howl! Howl!” send shivers down my spine no matter how many times I see it. The chain of being – that one’s elders must be respected – is broken again and again, especially by the Regan: “Sir, you are old!” – in a way that would have been truly shocking to a Jacobean audience such as Shaky’s, making it a really interesting piece. So, Shakespeare fans, don’t have a go at me, I’m on your side.

But the structure sucks.

What we have here is not a main plot and a sub plot. It’s two main plots. Gloucester’s trials and tribulations get practically as much time as Lear’s. What is this play called? KING LEAR. Not KING LEAR AND THE DUKE OF GLOUCESTER. Not even, HOW TWO OLD BLOKES GET TAKEN FOR A RIDE BY THEIR EVIL KIDS. It’s called KING LEAR, ergo it should be mostly about King Lear. But it’s not.

And this is something a lot of new writers share with Shakespeare. Too much time AWAY from their protagonist. Before you get the champagne out and toast yourselves on accidentally being the same as The Great Bard himself, I should tell you one other thing.

Readers don’t like it.

When I see a protagonist, I want to INVEST in them: I want to see how they go from A to B to C in their character arc. If you take AWAY from them – ie. have another character share their journey too much – you obfuscate that protagonist’s journey. We can no longer see who the most significant person is in this script. If you’re unsure who the main character is then, you’re not sure who you’re supposed to be following; it figures then that this means you end up not really sure what the script is really about. It’s kind of like one of those tile puzzles, where you have to move the squares around to form a picture. Just one tile out of place screws the entire thing up.

I read a lot of scripts that have two very different, distinct storylines as well as the ones in which the second main plot is supposed to the mirror the first. These still end up being King Lear drafts. Why? Because that very different, unconnected second storyline AGAIN takes away from that all-important main storyline. Let me explain.

We’re writing features here. Not TV. TV has a very different model of writing: watch something like SILENT WITNESS, PRIME SUSPECT, CRACKER, TRIAL AND RETRIBUTION etc and you’ll see a very obvious main plot like the protagonist going after a murderer or whatnot and then on the other hand, you have perhaps a personal story OF THEM (or one of the rest of the team) having difficulties at home. For example, in the last episode I saw of TRIAL, the main story was as usual a “work” story where the MIT squad had to solve a case of a girl who had fallen or been pushed down her cellar steps and died. At the same time, the Head Inspector was having problems with his son: he was smoking a lot of cannabis, kept running away and ended up killing a swan with piano wire when he thought it was looking at him. Two very different stories there. TV viewers want a contrast: characters in TV are not just their jobs; when we see them week after week or over a series of hours (as opposed to ninety minutes in a feature) we want more of an insight into the inticacies of not just their work, but the people they are behind those roles they perform. So, the MIT leader might have been a hotshot murder investigator, great; yet he is incapable of having a normal relationship with his increasingly rebellious and psychopathic son. Nice.

It’s different though in a feature. We haven’t got enough time, even in a longer film, to go King Lear. Having a completely different sub plot to your main plot is not a great idea. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen; it does. But the way audiences seem to favour is what I call The Jigsaw Plot.

What is The Jigsaw Plot? Well, you know those puzzles they make for babies? They maybe have three, four pieces, max. They’re obvious to you and I and anyone over the age of about two, but your one year old will struggle with it. So, one of those – ours has four pieces. On the first, the biggest piece: MAIN PLOT. On the second, medium size piece, we have SUB PLOT. On the second medium size piece we have CHARACTERS. On the smallest, dinkiest sized piece we have ARENA. Main Plot goes down first, natch. Then the two medium-sized pieces, then the smallest. Well, Durr.(You still with me? I’m getting to the good stuff now, honest).

Main plot is the arc your protagonist follows: this is why your character jigsaw piece feeds INTO it. But the sub plot ALSO feeds into the main plot, as does Arena. Everything is ABOUT that main plot. Nothing should come away from it, else you have an incomplete puzzle. Let’s have a look at this theory with the help of one of my absolute favourite movies, Mike Leigh’s fabulous SECRETS AND LIES:

MAIN PLOT: An adopted girl, Hortense, wants to trace her birth mother after her adopted mother dies.

SUB PLOT: Maurice and his wife have been trying for a baby for years and it has been destroying their relationship.

CHARACTERS: It turns out that not only is her mother, Cynthia, white (Hortense is black), she and Hortense are worlds apart: Hortense has had a privileged life and is an educated woman with a promising future; Cynthia meanwhile has a job in a box factory and has a difficult relationship with her brother Maurice and his wife and her other daughter that she kept, Roxanne (who is white). Maurice has difficulties with both Cynthia and Maurice – his loyalties are tied to both of them, yet neither woman will back down from their feud: Cynthia is jealous of the wife because before she came along she and Maurice were close; the wife is eaten up with jealousy that Cynthia has had two babies and spoilt her realtionship with both of them, giving the first away and estranging the other.

ARENA: The “feel” of this piece makes the most of the contrast between these families. There is much juxtaposition: black/white, love/hate, rich/poor, dependance/independence… The list goes on and on.

As you can see, the subplot FEEDS INTO that main plot; they are not separate. Without the subplot – the wife’s jealousy and Cynthia’s resentment – it would be a lesser film. It adds character and most importantly, adds into that main plot. The moral of this story then? Only have a sub plot that ADDS to your main plot in features, not takes away from it. Sounds obvious, yet it’s easier said than done. Let’s have a look at another film that does this convincingly, but in a more obvious way, PITCH BLACK:

MAIN PLOT: After crashing on a barren planet, the survivors must run for their lives when a solar eclipse allows subterreanean, photo-phobic monsters to reveal themselves and attempt to eat them all.

SUB PLOT: The crash, followed by a power struggle for leadership between convict-murderer Riddick and Bounty Hunter Johns.

CHARACTERISATION: Fry, the first in command after her two superiors die in the crash relinquishes power: she keeps saying “I’m not your fucking captain”. Throughout the piece, she defers to both Riddick and Johns in equal measures, playing almost “piggy in the middle” between their conflict, only withdrawing completely and running away with the rest of the survivors when Johns and Riddick have their big fight just before the end of Act Two and the start of the Resolution. Riddick if you recall appears to make a momentary lapse just before this fight, agreeing with Johns that they should kill the youngest girl, Jack, and drag her body behind them for the monsters to eat, thus improving the odds of the rest of their survival. This is an interesting character change, since he is a murderer and the antagonist, yet we’re asked to sympathise with him and not Johns, whom we are asked to think of as a Junkie who is prepared to let Fry’s superior Owens die in agony rather than give him some of his morphine as a mercy killing. Though simple in terms of plot, PITCH BLACK has some very interesting character conflict that feeds very nicely into both the main plot and subplot.

ARENA: Like its obvious predecessors ALIEN and ALIENS, the survivors are left with nowhere to run but THROUGH the peril if they are to survive. A staple of monster movies of course, as is the idea that situation worsens and worsens as their numbers drop (it even starts to rain when they only have flaming torches left to fend off the beasts), but done very effectively in my view.

Any thoughts?

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6 thoughts on “The Main Plot and The Sub Plot”

  1. Very useful stuff, Lucy. I think it’s difficult to know whether a subplot serves the main plot well enough until you’ve cracked it, really.

    Nothing’s cut and dried in screenwriting, of course: an example of a ‘King lear’ style mirror plot with different protagonists that I think works is the Bruno Kirby/Carrie Fisher sub-plot in ‘When Harry Met Sally’. But here the secondary characters get less screen time, and are never seen, IIRC, without the main characters being present too.

  2. Don’t know the film that well Stuart, (A Rom-Com, me???)but I’ll take your word for it – what’s key is the idea that those secondary characters are on screen LESS than those main characters, something a lot of us forget, even me… At the moment I’ve fallen in love with one of my secondaries in a script and I’m grappling with the notion of making it about her instead as we speak.

    You’re quite right though about not knowing til you “crack it”: those first drafts will be KL drafts if only for the fact that they’re streams of consciousness as we work out our ideas. Chopping off extra bits that obfuscate our main story come with what Syd Field calls “the mechanical draft” – quite a useful tag I thing for a draft where you work on plot first.

  3. Omigod Lara so true, just overhauling a total King Lear draft that I wrote about 5 years ago and have actually gone with its supposed sub plot which is better than the original “main” plot I first conceived. Like I always say tho: no writing is ever wasted.

  4. And this week’s Word Learnt From Lucy is…. ‘obfuscate’. Thankyou, madam.

    Very good points made, too. I rather like the idea of a subplot hijacking the main plot. Apart from all the rewriting it would entail…

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