Tag Archives: subplot

Story Maps


Mapping the Creative Process:

In looking at the writing process it is often helpful to have a snapshot or map of the lay of the land in mind. Below is one such map. (For a detailed definition of the listed terms, kindly consult the archived posts on this site.)

The Map

Most stories come from the generation of multiple ideas, ideas which are filtered and distilled down to a core of sufficient worth. In The Matrix the core idea is “What if the world we take to be real is an illusion?”

But an idea without a story is impotent. This is where the story concept comes in, followed by background and setting, which help the writer determine the genre.

At this point, log-lines and the one-liner help to focus the story concept and produce a working title.

The next stage involves a large and powerful leap—the synopsis. In writing the synopsis one determines and explores the main character and supporting cast— the backstory, biography, character traits, motivation, need vs want, goal and transformational arcs, where appropriate. Simultaneously, one builds a plot inflected by structureinciting incident, pinches, turning points, mid point, climax and resolution.

Now the writer is ready to identify and create possible subplots, central conflicts, obstacles to the story goal, suspense, pace, central imagery, and emotions.

That done, the writer is ready to create the treatment, followed by the step-outline, before turning to that all-important, but malleable first draft. It is here that dialogue comes to the fore, dialogue that ought to be authentic, purposeful and born out of the character’s already-defined traits.

By the end of the obligatory or climactic scene, the writer has exposed the main theme of the story—the winner of the battle carries the theme. In The Matrix, for example, human instinct and heart trump artificial intelligence.

Of course, the first draft is the first of several, as discussed in previous posts, but it does, at least, represent the first exposure of one’s story to the cold light of day.


Keeping a map of the overall creative process in mind is often helpful in supporting the writing of the first draft of a story. This post names the components of one such map.

Simplifying the Story Question

Question Mark

The Story Question

During one of my lectures on storytelling in Sydney, Australia, I remember one student asking me if there was one single piece of information, one pithy piece of advice, I could offer novice writers, which might help them to kickstart their story?

This reminded me of my asking the very same question of one of my mentors at the London International Film School, many years ago. The advice I received back then was the same advice I offered my Sydney students: What does your protagonist want and why can’t he/she have it?

This generic question incapsulates most traditional tales in one single sentence. Answering it involves telling a story in which the protagonist encounters a problem, seeks to solve it, is opposed in solving it by the antagonist, and either succeeds or fails to do so by the end of the story. Chunking these considerations into separate parts, yields, most typically, a three act structure based upon that well known Aristotelian observation that a story has a beginning (what is the problem), a middle (how does the protagonist engage with the problem) and an end (how is the problem finally resolved/unresolved).

Exploring Character

Probing the sentence further we uncover a psychological element: What does your protagonist ‘want’? Exploring your protagonist’s want(s) leads us to consider deeper elements of his/her life such as background, occupation, relationships, psychology, want versus need (see previous post). Some of these elements are typically revealed in the story’s subplot, involving minor characters who are arrayed into two main camps, the protagonists’ and the antagonists’. Typically, the subplot acts as a foil to the plot, highlighting, either by comparison or by contrast, similarities and differences in character, values, goals, as well as strengths and weaknesses of the major characters.

Exploring the Inner and Outer Journey

The question also hints at a dual journey to be undertaken by the protagonist in order to achieve his/her want: Clearly there is an outer goal to be achieved in order to fulfill the want, which, most typically, involves a physical entity or result: get the girl, stop the bomb from exploding in downtown Los Angeles, save the cat (outer journey). But the want involves a need: Why does the protagonist need to risk life and limb to do so (inner journey)?

We can see, even from a brief exploration of this basic question, how probing it yields an individual story that is, nevertheless, based upon a general truth. A typical story is nothing other than the tale of someone who wants to achieve something because of some deep psychological/human need, but is being prevented from doing so by opposing forces.


At the deepest level, individual stories may be summed up in universal structures. One such structure comes in the form of a question: What does your protagonist want and why can’t he/she have it? In answering this general question, you are, in fact, telling an individual story.


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Plot and Subplot: Several Strands, One Yarn

Image of yarn

Many Strands, One Yarn

We know that plot and subplot form the basis of all stories. What may be somewhat less obvious, however, is the precise relationship that exists between the two. How are these narrative elements knitted together, and what patterns do they form in stories? It may be useful to answer these questions in the following way: If plot is primarily concerned with the outer journey — the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal, the subplot(s) supports this journey by exploring its motivation, whether it concerns love, hate, generosity, revenge, or the like, and additionally tends to highlight theme, symbol, and the moral framework of the tale — the inner journey. In a finely crafted story, plot and subplot are woven together into a seamless whole.

The Role of Genre

Action-driven stories tend to spend more time on plot, although subplot is never ignored. Even frenetically paced films like Mission Impossible: The Ghost Protocol contain scenes which explore material centered on emotional content: Agent William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), for example, is wracked with guilt over having failed to protect Ethan Hunt’s (Tom Cruise) wife from being killed in Budapest. This frames many of his actions and his refusal to remain with the team at the film’s conclusion. We later learn that Hunt’s wife is very much alive and that Hunt has known this all along but has kept it secret in order to protect her. This sort of inner layering forms part of the story’s subplot.

The Piano

Art-cinema inflected films, by contrast, tend to emphasize subplot over plot. In The Piano, for example, the plot, involves Ada’s (Holly Hunter) attempt to get back her piano and thus regain her “voice” and self-expression. The new owner of the piano, George Baines (Harvey Keitel), who is obsessed with Ada, promises to returns the instrument to her in exchange for piano lessons and sex. This thread of lust, obsession, and Ada’s own awakening sexual passion, overshadows the plot, primarily because the action is diminutive in comparison to the spectacle found in Action/Adventure films. By contrast, it is the subplot that contains the large and tempestuous emotions that drive the story forward.

Retaining Plot Prominence

In some genres, such as the conventional Love Story, plot and subplot may even occasionally appear to merge, becoming difficult to pry apart. Here, the “love” thread, which typically provides part of the protagonist’s inner motivation/subplot in the Action/Adventure genres, now becomes the outer goal (plot), itself. This genre typically centers around the attempt of lovers to get/stay together despite mounting obstacles. Strengthening the outer obstacles may prevent the subplot from usurping the role of the plot.

In Summary

The normal function of the subplot(s) is to support, motivate, and highlight the inner concerns of the plot by exploring the relationships and emotions of the protagonist and other characters through one or several story strands. Occasionally, and depending on genre, subplots appear to usurp the plot.


If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.