The Value and Importance of Subplots: With 10 Amazing Examples
Subplots. Most movies and TV series have them, whether large or small.
The grand overarching plot is the defining part of a narrative arc. But subplots help add depth to this narrative arc. They keep the audience’s interest from waning and can help bolster the themes and controlling idea.
‘A secondary strand of the plot that is a supporting side story for any story or the main plot. Subplots may connect to main plots, in either time and place or in thematic significance.’
Subplots will always tie back into the main plot eventually. But they bide time in reaching the plot’s conclusion, whilst adding to the depth of characterisation, setting and themes.
So, firstly, how do you choose a subplot?
Keep Your Subplots Focused
Your subplots should always, ultimately, relate back to the main purpose and drive of the story.
So ask yourself questions about the purpose of your subplots:
- How does this subplot support the story’s themes?
- What does your subplot add in terms of characterisation?
- How does this subplot alter the main plot for the better?
- What does this subplot convey that couldn’t be conveyed in a more condensed way (for example, within one scene)?
There is admittedly a tricky balance in finding a subplot that can exist on its own two feet, and one that develops a life of its own. The latter could potentially distract from the main plot.
A subplot can also have a tonal purpose. However, this tonal purpose needs to come alongside a narrative purpose.
A subplot purely to change the tone (for example, comedic) will feel transparent for an audience. It needs to also be adding something to the themes, characterisation or main story.
With that in mind, what are the different types of potential subplot?
The Different Genres/Tones of Subplots
Subplots can have many different purposes. And even within that purpose there can be a multitude of layers. These subplots will often overlap and the perfect subplot may even cover all bases.
Still, let’s look at the different ways subplots might break down.
A romantic/love interest subplot.
This is perhaps the most common type of subplot.
- A romantic/love interest subplot will setup a different side of the protagonist. It will show them in relation to a loved one.
- This doesn’t necessarily have to be romantic. It could be a family member, for example.
- The strong feelings this character elicits from the protagonist will help add tension, raise the stakes and add character depth.
- A love interest will make the protagonist more vulnerable.
- For example, in an action movie, a romantic subplot will often overlap with the main plot by thrusting the love interest into peril.
- A classic example would be a villain capturing a love interest, the protagonist further motivated to defeat this villain as the stakes have become personal (if they weren’t already).
- In a drama, a romantic/love interest subplot might raise the stakes for the protagonist, providing a barometer for their actions.
- But they might also add context and characterisation to the characters (protagonist or supporting).
- This might help the audience better empathise with the characters.
- For example, a subplot about a protagonist’s childhood/background might help us better understand their present situation. In this way, a subplot can also help bolster the script’s theme.
- It’s vital that the love interest is a fully fleshed out character in their own right, with their own distinct character arc.
- Otherwise, their presence will feel two-dimensional and transparent.
A comedic subplot.
This will be a subplot intended to lighten the mood. Within a comedy it might alo provide a different variety of comedy for the audience.
One tone of comedy throughout the plot might become wearing. A different tenor of comedic tone will help freshen up the comedy as the audience receives it.
This is also dependant on the genre of the story and its intended audience.
- Badly timed and ill-conceived comedic relief in a drama with serious thematic resonance will potentially prove very jarring for an audience.
- But a story for a wide audience without any comic relief might prove wearing in its portentousness.
The key is to make sure the comedy is stemming from the right place. Does it have relevance still to the main plot? Is it in keeping with the tone of the story overall, whilst also adding something fresh?
A thematic subplot.
This will be a subplot that helps bolster the main point the script is trying to make. Think of this as backing up an argument with multiple examples.
- If a story has a central thesis, then more than just one example proving the thesis in action will help its validity.
- A theme will be more all the more convincing the larger picture is given of it.
At its most extreme, a thematic subplot might be one that at first seemingly has little to do with the main plot.
- However, in illuminating the same themes that the primary plot is touching on, this subplot justifies its existence within the story.
A character background subplot.
Character depth can be bolstered by giving the audience insights into why the characters are the way they are.
What are the experiences/people/places that have shaped them?
- This might be achieved typically, for example, by flashbacks.
- Or it may by be achieved by a simultaneous narrative running alongside the primary narrative.
This background context will help give the audience a clearer picture of the present narrative.
- It might give them clues as to where the story is going.
- Or it might help give an understanding of the story’s purpose.
If the narrative is a puzzle, then insights into a character’s background might help in stitching the pieces together. It might make everything, suddenly, make sense.
A narrative subplot.
This will be when one piece of the plot splinters.
- There might be a seemingly throwaway encounter or scene.
- This will then spiral.
- Such a throwaway moment will reveal itself to be so much more.
This part of the narrative will then become so monstrous on its own, that there is little option but for it to infiltrate the main plot.
Either the strength of the characters within it or the way the protagonist can’t ignore it will mean the subplot will become increasingly important. Right up until it is indistinguishable from the main plot.
The Timing of Subplots
Timing the inclusion and pace of your subplots right is important.
Subplots are there, after all, to make the story more interesting overall. Therefore, if plot and subplots start/peak/conclude at the same time, you are wasting their potential. That’s putting all eggs in one basket.
For example, in a movie…
- a subplot might typically start just after the main plot, protagonist and story world is set up.
- It will peak when there is a lag in the primary plot, often within the second act.
- And it might then end after the main plot is concluded, wrapping up the story and its themes. Alternatively, it could be resolved before the conclusion of the main plot.
However, subplots are flexible.
The most important thing is that momentum is continually being generated throughout the screenplay. Where one plot reaches some kind of achievement, for example, there should still be conflict elsewhere to be resolved.
Continual rising and falling of dramatic momentum is likely what will keep audiences interested.
The subplots are the cogs that keep the wheel spinning.
We’ve outlined some of the most memorable subplots in both movies and TV. See if you can match them up with what subplot category they best fall into.
#1 Se7en – Somerset and Tracy Mills
In Se7en, a subplot is set in motion when Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) meets his partner’s wife, Tracy Mills (Gwyneth Paltrow).
Somerset forms an affection for Tracy, who seems to represent hope in the face of so much ill in the world. What starts out as a third party meeting develops when Tracy asks to speak to Somerset privately over a coffee.
She confides in him that she’s pregnant and Somerset gives her advice about what to do. Somerset emphasises with Tracy, having had a similar experience with an ex-girlfriend when he was younger.
- The subplot of this friendship reveals an aspect of Somerset’s character and backstory.
- It also speaks to the movie theme, Tracy representing hope and virtue in the face of sin.
- The subplot also makes the final conclusion all the more impactful.
In the finale, Tracy and Somerset’s friendship ties into the main plot to devastating effect. Somerset is made to feel culpable, whilst his fear that sin will pervade even that which seems hopeful, comes true.
#2 Hidden Figures – Dorothy and Mary
In Hidden Figures, Katherine is undeniably the protagonist. However, her two friends and colleagues, Mary and Dorothy, are vital in fleshing out the context of the story world and hammering home the themes.
The primary thematic motivation for the story is the fight for equality in the workspace in the context of race and sex. Whilst Katherine’s arc is the main vessel for this theme, subplots of the two other women help illustrate this theme even further.
- Mary is a refused a role as an engineer. She’s told it was because she didn’t have the right qualifications. However, when she sees her white male counterparts without such qualifications get roles, she is outraged. She sets about making her complaints formal, going to court to obtain permission to attend.
- Dorothy, meanwhile, seeks to learn about new technologies being implemented at NASA. She’s initially locked out by her white colleagues. When trying to teach herself, she is also forced to steal a book from the library as she’s told off for being in the ‘whites only’ section.
These subplots help flesh out the theme of discrimination in a wider context. They show how far it reaches, beyond just Katherine in her new work setting.
Moreover, they show how such discrimination was fought on many different fronts – legally, educationally and personally.
#3 Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli in LOTR:Two Towers
Frodo and Sam continue towards Mordor to destroy the ring. Meanwhile, Aragon, Legolas and Gimli pursue saving the other two hobbits, Merry and Pippin.
However, their journey reveals more than perhaps we, and they, could have first imagined. It’s one befitting their strengths, full of enemies to fight off.
- Their subplot not only brings a lot of exciting action but also mystery and suspense, as they must liberate Eomer from Sauron’s grasp.
- Furthermore, they come across one of the most shocking reveals in the entire story, discovering a reborn Gandalf.
Their subplot eventually leads into one of the most compelling sequences in the series – the epic battle of Helm’s Deep.
#4 Superbad – McLovin and the Police
Superbad serves up a great example of a comedic subplot.
- When McLovin is picked up for having a fake ID, officers Slater (Bill Hader) and Michaels (Seth Rogen) somewhat bizarrely offer to take him to the party he is going to.
The way that Slater and Michaels treat McLovin is rife with comedy. They’re shown to not be the finest examples of police officers and seem to revel in McLovin’s romantic pursuits.
These two new characters add depth to the plot as well as comedy. Furthemore, they allow McLovin to become a more fully fledged character too, taking him away from the two main characters (Seth and Evan).
Moreover, this subplot allows the film to feature two stellar comedic performances from two skilled comedic actors (Seth Rogen and Bill Hader).
- This shows the value of having subsidiary parts, which subplots will often contain.
- In a film lead by relative unknowns (at the time), cameos from two more well-established actors adds value.
#5 Snape’s Backstory
Throughout the Harry Potter series, Professor Snape serves as a consistent villainous present. It’s not until The Half Blood Prince do we get a fuller picture of who he really is.
The fact that Snape’s backstory has been kept from us for so long is why its reveal proves so rewarding. Throughout the different films, we get more and more of a picture of his role in the story.
He’s not who we first thought he was.
Furthermore, his backstory with Harry’s parents reveals not only something about why his relationship with Harry has always been spiky, but it also shatters Harry’s idyllic image of his father.
#6 The Godfather Part II – Young Vito Corleone
In The Godfather Part II, flashbacks to the origins of Vito Corleone in America, and of the Corleone crime family, are masterful in how they contrast with the present day state of the Corleone family, now led by Michael.
This subplot helps give context to why and how the family were established. It speaks to the themes The Godfather story has at its heart – immigration to America, American capitalism and family.
It also strengthens both Vito and Michael’s characterisation, showing the different ways they got to their positions at the head of the family.
The subplot seeks to show the downfall of a family by showing its beginnings.
- It demonstrates how lost the values that started the family have become.
- But it also shows how violence, ruthlessness and cunning were always present in how the family operated. Vito had to display such attributes to get ahead in the first place.
#7 Breaking Bad – Gus Fring and the Cartel
- He takes Walter from being a relatively small time dealer and plunges him into the world of the Mexican cartel.
- Here the opportunities for Walter to make money are much greater but so are the stakes for danger.
Gus is an endlessly fascinating character, whose backstory is gradually revealed throughout the series. His subplot is one that doesn’t hit the audience all at once, starting off small before enveloping the entire narrative.
Walter cannot ignore him or get rid off him easily. And neither can we.
#8 The Social Network – Mark and Erika
The Social Network opens with the depiction of a relationship coming to an end. But by no means is that the end of its presence in the film.
Mark and Erika’s relationship runs as a subplot throughout the story, in light of all the high drama and high stakes.
Mark can’t shake Erika and the fact that she dumps him in the first scene.
- He starts an online ranking system for women in the university campus, drunkenly spurned on by his breakup that very night.
- This proves to be the spark that lights the flame for the genesis of Facebook.
- Even at the height of buzz and success, when out with two other women, Erika humbles Mark when they bump into each other and she calls him out for his behaviour.
- At the end of the film, Mark still seeks connection with Erika. He friend requests her on Facebook.
Mark and Erika’s relationship is more than just a romantic subplot. It serves as the catalyst for the story and continually reminds us of Mark’s fragility, insecurity and his desperation to remedy these things.
#9 Moonlight – Chiron’s Mum
As Chiron comes to terms with who he is, in different ways and within three different time periods, his mother’s presence consistently haunts him.
- Throughout Moonlight, Chiron’s relationship with his mother is a subplot that helps define Chiron’s internal conflict.
- It’s represented both literally, when we see him interact with his mother,
- but also metaphorically, when he can’t shake imagery of her screaming at him from his mind.
What starts out as a part of setting up Chiron’s world becomes an important part of piecing together his personality.
A conciliatory moment between the two in the third act proves heartbreaking. This also helps set the tone for a further conciliatory moment for Chiron, with Kevin.
#10 The Lion King – Timon and Pumba
Who can forget Timon and Pumbaa? Who can forget Hakuna Matata?
In The Lion King, just when Simba seems at his nadir, a crucial subplot comes into action.
- Timon and Pumbaa, wandering, come across Simba sleeping in the desert, alone and in danger from circling vultures.
- Timon and Pumbaa bring Simba into their world.
- They prove crucial to Simba growing up as we see them take take him under their wing and imbue him with their philosophy.
Just when The Lion King seems to be at its darkest, Timon and Pumbaa enter.
- They provide comic relief, a change of pace and help transition the story firmly into its Act Two.
- They take the story in a different direction, only for this subplot to eventually become a part of the main plot.
- Timon and Pumbaa help Simba in his journey back to the Pride Lands to defeat Scar and take his rightful place as the Lion King.
The story needs this variety at this point, providing hope for our protagonist and a crucial, if momentary, change of tone.
Timon and Pumbaa will continue to provide this comic relief and alternate tone throughout, even at the story’s darkest moments.