How many subplots is too many?



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  • How many subplots is too many?

    What's the most subplots you've ever written into a story?

    How many do you think is too many?

    And are you counting every inter-personal relationship as a subplot?

  • #2
    In the great words on one, Deus Ex Machine...

    Screenplays are about complex characters and simple plots.

    Motivation - Save the girl
    Motivation - Revenge
    Motivation - Save the world

    Story's should be broken down into something simple the audience can wrap their mind around. Then subplots come into play...

    Sub-plots must run parallel and be intertwined with the story's main plot. Thus the name. You wouldn't get a contract to build a house and sub-contract a company to build the frame of a boat.

    Same thing. So whether the parallel storyline is romance, a double agent, a lost friendship, etc. it must have to do with plot. How many are too many? Tough to say. I'd say you wouldn't want more than two to three subplots for the following reasons...

    1. Subplots while adding to the emotional impact of the story, take up valuable screen time.
    2. Any more than that and you're forcing the audience to work at following the plot and they aren't there to work.
    3. You have WAY too many details to tie into the overall storyline and you'll either end up with something that is confusing or you'll just give up all together.
    4. People simply do not want five different things to follow. Especially a reader, or exec, who reads five scripts a day.

    Hope that helps.


    • #3
      One may be too many or 12 may be too few...

      What maters is: do the subplots add to and support the main plot? If the subplots don't *grow* from the main plot, they are tack-on garbage.

      - Bill


      • #4
        I had gotten lost in structuring one of my stories, so I went back to my Linda Seger book.

        She counts Tootsie as having 6 plots, 2 major and 4 minor:
        Main plot (major): Michael dressing up as a woman to get a job.
        Subplot (major): The romantic story between Michael and Julie.
        Subplot (minor): Michael and his insecure friend, Sandy
        Subplot (minor): Michael and Julie's father, Les
        Subplot (minor): Michael and Brewster, the soap opera doctor
        Subplot (minor): Julie and Ron, the director of the soap opera

        And yes, I can see how they all integrate to make a richer, fuller story.

        The story I'm currently working on has ended up, depending on your perspective, either quite complicated, or richer and fuller. I'm up to 8 plot lines, if I count every single inter-personal relationship as a separate plot.

        It was a real breakthrough moment for me to plot out all these relationships individually (each with their own setup, development, turning points and climax) as Linda Seger did with Tootsie, to verify that they all relate to each other and support the main plot.

        Probably, in the end they actually collapse down to 3 or 4 plot lines:
        1. the main plot with all the external action
        2. the romantic subplot
        3. the internal conflict of the protagonist
        4. the antagonist's subplot that provides a twist to the main plot

        ...and as I write this, the structure becomes clearer still. Thanks for letting me workshop with you.


        • #5
          Okay, my bad. I looked at my current script and the subplots play out as follows...

          Protag's Goal
          Romantic Interest
          Race Angle
          Protag's Inner Conflict
          Antag External Motivation
          Antag Inner Motivation
          Sidekick's External Motivation
          And there's quite a few others...

          I guess I didn't really see the whole picture like that until I broke in down into plot lines because it's all part of one big picture. So if I listened to my previous advice, I'd have to nix some very relevant content.


          • #6
            I like how you've labeled your different story perspectives.

            How do you think they'll collapse down into the major plot lines of your story structure? For example, is the plot line of the antagonist's internal conflict part of the romantic subplot?


            • #7
              Bigtime... The inner conflicts of the protag and the antag tie directly together on opposing sides of the fence. Then tie to the protag's outer motivation. Then romantic interest pops up as a direct result of the protag trying to achieve his goal.

              And, the romantic subplot IS the antag's inner motivation. It adds fuel to the fire.


              • #8
                I've noticed in more than a few instances, that what gets described as the main plot really isn't the main theme of a movie. Like in Witness, the main plot is described as a boy witnessing the murder of a cop. But the real meat of the story was in the romantic subplot.

                Should be some other kind of label to give that other than "main plot" because it's not the main idea -- unless you're watching a "summer blockbuster."

                How I long for the days when movies had depth.


                • #9
                  If we're talking theme. The theme in Witness is actually...

                  In order to keep the peace do we need to resort to violence?

                  It's that underlying theme that drives the story. You have a tough cop who's willing to resort to violence at the drop of a hat dropped undercover into a situation where violence doesn't exist. Inner and outer conflict rise from there.

                  Sure the boy witnesses the murder but that's the inciting incident. This is what drives the cop to protect him and become part of his world in order to catch the killer. Brilliantly written script.


                  • #10

                    i think i crammed 4 or 5 into a script once. would say 3 or 4 subplots would be the max. is possible to have gobs, just not practical.

                    no - every relationship is not a subplot



                    • #11
                      kojled --

                      I took all the relationships and plotted them as though they were a subplot. I helped me make sure that the characters were each pertinent to the story, and to see their strengths and weaknesses. Some of them do need some redirection to give the story more impact. I believe I counted 8 different relationships that work into 3 plot lines.


                      • #12
                        Revisionist --

                        Well, you made me stop and think after that last comment. (I hate it when I have to do that.)

                        I don't know that I can even articulate the theme of the story I'm working on right now. I've just been working on story intuitively. I neglected my real work all day to search out what was I trying to say with this story. I've got it down to something along the lines of individual moral corruption vs. societal corruption.

                        And then that led to diagramming through-lines of all the plots. And now my head hurts.


                        • #13
                          I hate that. For me I have to have theme decided on long before I start the outline. It allows me to develop a pattern to my thinking. That way as plot lines intertwine and story develops it doesn't shoot off course because the theme and character are mutually inclusive.

                          I really have to know my protag inside and out to develop the outline so I sometimes spend weeks trying to get him to spit out what he's trying to say through whatever pain he's suffering. Poor guy. I really put him through hell too. :evil


                          • #14
                            If You Don't Mind The Brogue...

                            See John Crowley's INTERMISSION.