Hear my advice: if you want to see an example of a subplot done well, watch the 2008 series The Spectacular Spider-man. Now you’re probably scratching your forehead thinking “I’ve never heard of it. How good can this TV show be if no one knows it? Also, seriously?”
Well, yes. In this post, I’m basically saying that if you want to see an example of a subplot that enriches your story, you have to watch a superhero series for kids… but bear with me for a second and I’ll get to the point.
What is a subplot?
First of all, It’s best to give a definition to the word: subplot. Essentially, it’s a storyline less important than the main story which revolves, usually, around secondary characters.
In screenwriting it can be called the B Story or the C Story, depending on how many of those additional storylines you want to put into the screenplay.
Usually there are just 2 subplots (B and C) but you can put in more if you want, just don’t go all the way through Z or your movie will never end.
A lot of people ask themselves if the subplot is necessary to make the story entertaining or if it’s just a waste of time that distracts from the main focus.
Answer: it can be both. A good subplot makes the main story more interesting, a bad subplot wastes time.
Rather than simply explaining the theory, it’s better if I show you an example of a subplot that works, so here’s The Spectacular Spider-man episode named “Opening night”.
What makes a subplot good?
Think about the subplot as a screwdriver, if a screwdriver serves its purpose (which is… driving… screws… more or less) it’s useful, if it doesn’t serve its purpose you might as well throw it away.
Here’s a checklist of what the subplot must do in order to be a good one:
1 – Be less important
It’s a mistake to give more importance to the subplot than to the main story. If the two stories that you’re writing are equally important, then you’re not writing Story A and it’s subplot, you’re just writing two stories.
Story A is about the murder of a person and the detective who is investigating
Story B is about the detective’s problematic relationship with his kids (because if there’s something I‘ve learned from Law & Order is that detectives are terrible at family stuff).
If you write a 10 minutes scene about the detective fighting with his rebellious teenage daughter and a 3 minutes scene about the interrogation of the murderer, there’s already something wrong.
The B story shouldn’t be emphasized more than the main story, if you can’t resist the temptation to give it more importance, you should consider switching and making the murder the subplot to a family drama.
In this episode the focus is clearly on Spider-man, not just because he’s the guy in the title, but because his storyline is emphasized as the MAIN story thanks to those 3 things:
- It gives the protagonist more screen time than the other characters
- The decisions and actions taken by the protagonist greatly affect the plot
- Compared to the other storylines, the main story has a lot more at stake
If Spider-man fails and gets beaten, a lot of dangerous super criminals will be roaming the city, if Flash fails and gives a boring performance, the worst that can happen is that someone’s parent in the audience will yawn.
The most important events that happen during the play (like Harry not showing up and Liz noticing that Peter is missing) are still important for the overall plot of the series, but their impact is not as imminent as Spidey being saved from a bunch of angry criminals.
2 – Reinforce the theme
I’ve already written a post about Annihilation and how to express a theme of a story, so all I’m going to say now is: if you have a theme stick to it.
When your main story is about freedom of choice and the subplot is about the importance of an insurance policy, things don’t add up and the audience will leave the theatre thinking “What was the point?”.
In this episode, the Shakespearean play is what ties everything together: the Green Goblin talks in rhymes, and two characters in the play wear costumes similar to the supervillain and the superhero. But the theme actually goes deeper than that.
Just like the protagonists of “A midsummer’s night dream”, Spider-man finds himself trapped in a strange place with both enemies and friends, there’s a substance (the gas) that can alter people’s senses, a transformation from human to non human (Mysterio’s robot) and every move is watched and countered by a mythical creature (more or less, the Green Goblin is just a guy with a mask and not a real goblin)
Also the theme of “A midsummer night’s dream” is love and how it can make people lose their minds or act irrationally
3 – Break the tension
Sometimes the main narrative is filled with tension, jumpscares, and heart-stopping moments. But you can’t expect the audience to feel excited, scared or anxious for the whole time, that’s when the subplot comes in.
If the protagonist is constantly in danger, have the secondary character bring some comedic relief with a joke.
If things are not going too well in the main character’s storyline, make the secondary character do something that will positively affect the other story.
If you had to cut every part of the subplot from this episode, it would amount to 10 minutes of Spider-man doing spider stuff and punching bad guys. It wouldn’t be horrible, but still, the people watching would need a break.
The writers selected the quotes from Shakespeare’s work and turned them into comments on the events of the story and intercutting the actions scenes with the play creates some pretty funny moments, and the
4 – Affect the main story
This is probably the most important thing. Since we’re talking about subplot and not about a random standalone story, Story A and Story B should be linked.
The effects that Story B has on Story A don’t need to be devastating, just enough to bring some minor changes.
In The Spectacular
The absence of Harry Osborn raises suspicion of who the Green Goblin really is, Liz’s disappointment in not seeing Peter creates a problem in their relationship. Overall the two stories are tied together by the antagonist and the protagonist.
Back when it first came out, The Spectacular Spider-man was rumored to be the best TV series about the friendly neighborhood’s superhero, but unfortunately, it got canceled after just 2 seasons.
All the episodes feature a funny but compelling story and do a great job to contrast the action-packed life of Spider-man and the drama-filled relationships of Peter Parker.
The reason why I’m bringing back the fossil of a dead and unknown TV series is that whenever I think about how to find a good example of a subplot to improve a story I’m writing, I think about this series.
And with the latest Spider-man movie coming out (Into the Spider-verse) I thought it would be nice to be nostalgic for a second and look back at the best Spider-man TV series ever made
according to me.