While you can certainly get away with a short story having only one plot, novels and movies will almost always have a number of plots going at once. One of those plots is dominant, of course, but what about those smaller, all important sub plots?
In The Godfather, we watch as a violent power play is made against Don Corleone by a rival Mafia family. His young, clean-cut son, Michael Corleone, volunteers to take revenge, and the movie follows Michael’s descent into the dark world of the Mafia and his eventual emergence as the new Godfather.
There are a number of subplots in the movie, but the one that most strikes a chord is Michael’s relationship with two women. The first is Kay, who is decidedly not Italian. She’s his lifeline to the outside world. His connection to “reality.”
But as he’s drawn deeper into the violence, Michael’s ties to her become more and more tenuous, until he finds himself completely cut off from her — and the outside world — as he hides out in Sicily.
In Sicily, Michael meets a young local woman who steals his heart. She’s his soul mate, his true love, whom he marries. Then, in another act of revenge, a car carrying his new bride is blown to bits, plunging Michael into an emotional darkness he’s never known.
He goes back to the U.S. a considerably different man, but rekindles his relationship with Kay and eventually marries her — a marriage that is obviously doomed.
This particular subplot would probably have a tough time standing on its own. Its reliance on the main story line is obvious enough, but what really makes it great is that it parallels and impacts Michael’s descent. Kay represents Michael’s relationship to the “civilian” world, while his marriage to the Sicilian woman illustrates his rediscovery of his roots.
The tragic twist in this subplot is one of the major causes of Michael’s emotional retreat and his rise to power. He becomes a man so cold and ruthless that he’s able (in Part II) to put a hit out on his own brother.
And that’s what all great movie and novel subplots do. They rise organically from the main storyline, attaching themselves to your hero and impacting his ability to reach his goal. Great subplots are so closely woven into the fabric of the story that we often have a hard time discerning them.
Even lesser movies than The Godfather recognize the need for a solid subplot.
A favorite of mine is a dark, direct-to-video thriller called Resurrection, which was written by Brad Mirman, the writer of several good thrillers. To some, Resurrection plays like a poor man’s rip-off of Seven, but I much prefer Mirman’s take on the hunt for a serial killer because of its inventiveness — something I think Seven’s rather cliched story lacks.
Resurrection is essentially about a couple of cops hunting for a serial killer who is taking the body parts of his victims and building them into a representation of Christ. Each of the victims is named after an apostle and the killer’s timeline runs him straight toward Easter, the day of resurrection.
The subplot is a minor one, but it certainly deepens the lead character. He’s a cop who, after the tragic death of his son, has discarded his faith in God and is quickly losing his emotional connection to his wife.
During the course of the movie, his wife attempts to repair their marriage and his faith by inviting the local priest over for a pep talk, but our hero soundly rejects the man and any notion of accepting help from him.
Then, while looking for a clue to the killer’s plan that seems deeply rooted in Biblical lore, our hero must finally seek the help of the priest. But as he enters the church, he hesitates, as if the mere act of stepping foot in the place is a betrayal of his son’s memory.
Again, this subplot is powerful because it is so securely attached to the main storyline that it can’t exist on its own. The two plots feed off of each other and both are stronger because of it.
A lot of movies today treat subplots as an afterthought. Stories are often built by a committee from a “hot” idea, the characters created to fill out a plot that’s stretched so thin that the slightest jolt could snap it apart.
Subplots are haphazardly tacked on in a weak attempt to keep the whole mess together, and their paint-by-numbers obviousness is one of the greatest contributors to the collective snore rising from the audience.
Many storytellers today have it backwards. Yes, start with a great idea, but rather than try to force characters and subplot into that story, try creating the characters first, then let the story grow from them. Characters are story. And any great plot or subplot is driven by the characters’ wants and desires.
Remember this as you sit down to write and, with time and patience, you too can give us writing the caliber of The Godfather and Resurrection. Not a bad place to be.