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Screenwriting Structure Series Part 14: Subplots & the Midpoint

By The Unknown Screenwriter

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Previous Article in series.

Don't really know what a subplot is? No problem... Some writers don't. LOL. A subplot is basically everything else going on with your Protagonist that you're not including in the main storyline. All your other main characters are not unlike your Protagonist. Each has their very own main storyline, goal, motivation, action, events, obstacles, crisis, and resolution.

Subplots. You've got a couple, right? If you do not, now might be the time to consider them. A lot of stories very naturally spin off a subplot or two and that's a good thing but there's nothing wrong with a planned subplot either. In fact, it's okay to manipulate your spun off subplot into a planned subplot that helps serve the story better.

Consider using subplots to do some of your dirty work when it comes to the following...
  • Theme
  • Introduction of new characters
  • Development of the relationship between the Protagonist and the Stakes character
  • Develop/Reveal character of both the Protagonist and secondary characters
  • Increase Protagonist's conflict
  • Exposition
  • Breaking up scenes that run too long
  • Heighten or release tension built up by the main story
Many writers call the subplots the "B," "C", and "D" stories. They are similar to your main or "A" story but usually lack some of the same story or structural elements. While there is certainly no definitive rule, subplots do not require the same story or structural elements as the main story and often rely on exposition to fill in said story or structural elements.

Often, by simply exploring and analyzing your main plot from as many different perspectives as possible can spin off a new subplot. This is perhaps, best accomplished by using those amazing secondary characters that you've developed.

Tell us your secondary character's story...

Just as your Protagonist is a character in conflict, so should your secondary characters be in conflict of some kind and hence, we follow this secondary character's struggles via the subplot and this subplot helps pull the main story into full focus by the end of the screenplay.

Consider the importance of all your subplots...

Many times I will read a screenplay that puts a weaker subplot in front of a more important subplot. Meaning that there is so much emphasis on a weaker subplot that either it needs to be fleshed out so that it becomes more important or maybe it needs to be the main story. You do not want your subplots to be more interesting than the main story.

An outstanding movie to watch if you want to see a movie that caters to the importance of subplots is BEAUTIFUL GIRLS. I've learned so much from this movie that every time I watch it, I am amazed. The same goes for THE GREAT ESCAPE.

Intersect your subplot with the main story plot and allow this subplot to create new complications for your Protagonist. Subplots can run parallel to the main storyline or they can run in complete contrast to it but ALL SUBPLOTS SHOULD SUPPORT, INFORM, AND EVENTUALLY WRAP UP OR PAY OFF INTO YOUR MAIN STORY PLOT.

Do not leave your subplots UNATTENDED. Don't get us all spun up in a B, C, or D story and then forget to tie it up. Either tie it up or get rid of it.

Midpoint

What's the midpoint in a screenplay? How about this...
  • Revelation
  • Reversal of fortune
  • Point of no return
  • Change of direction
  • Protagonist's full commitment to goal
  • Burning of the bridges
  • Could be a huge HIGH
  • Could be a huge LOW
  • Protagonist "thinks" he or she knows everything they need to know
  • Brings up a completely new Central Question
  • Protagonist ceases to be pushed around
  • Protagonist has a new plan
  • Protagonist begins the shedding his or her flaw(s)
  • Glimmer of hope for the Protagonist
The above is not an all-inclusive list of course, this is just off the top of my head but hopefully you get the IDEA. The IDEA being that any of the above can work as the midpoint of a screenplay.

Probably one of the most asked questions I get is the midpoint being the POINT OF NO RETURN. Lots of confusion here... Let me see if I might be able to shed some light on the point of no return.

Some screenwriters argue that the entire screenplay should be a point of no return because hey... If the Protagonist doesn't move forward or simply goes back home, we have no story. True. And even if we write a Protagonist that defies this strategy and goes back home - he or she is very likely to find that the problem has simply followed them back. LOL.

I personally like to think of the midpoint as the point in the story where the Protagonist has just a spark of what it's going to take to go on. Before this however, he or she's been letting the river carry them forward while they tread water - maybe even trying to swim back in the other direction. Get it?

Or how about this, I can't tell you how many times I've actually seen this IN A MOVIE...

The protagonist heads down a river - straight for a waterfall. The biggest waterfall the world has ever seen. Or not. But a big one. The protagonist does everything in his or her power to thwart going over the waterfall.

Think about that for a second... You're thinking fast. You're paddling like crazy. You tell anyone else with you to work harder. You do not want to go over that waterfall.

Right.

But you do.

There is that point at the edge of the falls where by God you just have to GUT IT OUT BABY because you're going over no matter what you do. You can either have a heart attack NOW and die or PREPARE for the plunge of death.

You decide to prepare.

And you go over... Down, down, down you go... KERSPLASH! We're sitting in the audience. Of course the Protagonist made it. He or she HAS to make it, right? Or else there would be no story. But still... Even though we've seen this a hundred times before we still have that tension and uncertainty of not knowing whether or not the Protagonist is going to survive the fall.

Maybe the boat explodes - maybe it doesn't. Everything and everybody disappears for just a couple of seconds... Cuz they're underwater, right?

And here they come... Bouncing to the surface. Our fear(s) laid to rest. Don't you kind of get the idea that if the Protagonist can survive a huge waterfall like that, then they can probably just about survive ANYTHING?

Sure... We think so... But more importantly, the Protagonist thinks so. He or she may not know WHY they think so. It's all association. Before the waterfall, the worst thing that ever happened to him or her was being arrested. A car wreck. A divorce. Loss of a job.

Get it?

Eveything makes you stronger but you don't consciously think of it in those terms - YOU JUST FEEL STRONGER.

And even if the midpoint is a LOW POINT - like a waterfall, the survival makes you stronger. Having said that... Don't feel like you have to actually USE a WATERFALL to get your midpoint across. It's old and tired yet we still see it.

Why?

Because it works.

Next Article in series.

About The Unknown Screenwriter

A working screenwriter and producer, The Unknown Screenwriter makes his home in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California and somewhere in the state of New Mexico with just a little bit of Los Angeles thrown in when he feels he can breathe the air.

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