On this blog every Tuesday and Friday I write about story techniques, structure, and/or publishing. Comments and questions are welcome. I also have a personal blog, Amy Deardon, on which I write about a variety of topics purely as they catch my fancy.

I've written one novel, A Lever Long Enough, that I'm honored to say has won two awards. In my life BC (before children) I was a scientist who did bench research.

My book, The Story Template: Conquer Writer's Block Using the Universal Structure of Story, is now available in both hard-copy and e-book formats. I also coach would-be novelists and screenwriters to develop their story. YOU CAN CONTACT ME at amydeardon at yahoo dot com.

Friday, November 30, 2012


Subplots are a powerful writer's tool to enlarge and delightfully complicate a story. Many writers simply add subplots as events or characters occur to them

during writing. While there is nothing wrong with this method, I'd like to suggest that deliberately designing subplots to perform specific story functions may be a

stronger method for writing.

The functions of subplots and the incorporation of these into a story often seems mysterious. To understand how subplots work, let's take a step back to look at

the entire story, then drill down to examine subplots.

The story can be divided into two general components:

Outer Story: the action events that occur. The outer story can be defined as the Story Goal (answered by a yes or no at the end of the story), Stakes (defining why

reaching this story goal is so important for the protagonist), and Obstacles (both internal and external).

Inner Story: the emotional changes and realizations that are made by one or more characters. The main component of the inner story is the Definition of the

protagonist's Hidden Need (an emotional lack, such as fear of bonding or reluctance to lead) that affects others, and then the protagonist's Solution to his Hidden


The story contains multiple narratives, event descriptions, and plot directions. Each of these component strands in the story can be categorized into one or more

of the following five classifications:

Strand 1. Main Outer Story: the events describing the protagonist's pursuit of his Story Goal.

Strand 2. Main Inner Story: The events demonstrating the protagonist's Hidden Need, and then his solution of this.

Strand 3. Antagonist Story: the events from the perspective of the obstacles, usually the main antagonist but can be anything that stands in the way of the

protagonist's reaching his goal.

Strand 4. Gift at Climax: the events that bring about a believable problem solution. For example, if a car will need to be available in the middle of the desert for

our hero to make a getaway, this sequence will describe how that car gets there.

Strand 5. Protagonist's Mirror: events experienced by another character with the same fundamental problem as the protagonist, say, control of an object or an

overriding temptation to pride. This Mirror character answers the problem in a usually bad way that serves as a caution to the reader about how the protagonist

might also potentially screw up if he's not careful.


Story scenes can fall into several classifications at once: for example, an event about a mirror character interacting with our hero may both push the story

forward (#1) and establish the mirror's fundamental problem (#5).

Subplots may be considered any events or story lines that fall into strands #2, #3, #4, and/or #5. These story strands often have a story shape, although can

also be isolated scenes establishing a neccessary story component.

What does a story shape look like? There are many answers to this, but one I like very much is from John Truby's book, THE ANATOMY OF STORY.

Stage 1: Weakness, Problem, and Need

Your story character has a Weakness within himself of which he’s not aware at the beginning of the story. The Weakness is psychological (it hurts the character)

and moral (it hurts others). Your story character has a story Problem stemming from this weakness. Finally, he has a Need to solve this weakness.

For example, in THE WIZARD OF OZ, Dorothy's Weakness is that she is unhappy living at home (psychological), and wants to leave (moral; exemplified by her

running away in the first act). Dorothy's Problem is that she runs away from home, causing her to be lost in the tornado and delivered to the land of Oz. Dorothy's

Need is that she must appreciate living at home with her family.

Stage 2: Desire

Your story character has an outer desire: the story's goal. For example, in THE WIZARD OF OZ Dorothy wants to leave Oz to go home.

Stage 3: Opponent

The opponent is the character who is competing with the story character for the same goal. For example, both Dorothy and the Wicked Witch of the West want to

determine whether she is able to talk to the Wizard of Oz or not, and ultimately whether she can leave Oz or not.

Stage 4: Plan

Your story main character must have at least a vague idea, or maybe a more detailed plan, of how he plans to fight the opponent to gain his desire. For example,

Dorothy keeps making her way towards Oz. She also collects a motley group of friends who help protect her from the witch.

Stage 5: Battle

Your story character and opponent battle for supremacy . This is a punch-counterpunch series of actions. For example, Dorothy is kidnapped by the Witch's

flying monkeys, then fights her in the Witch's castle over the broomstick. Dorothy douses the witch with water, and the witch melts.

Stage 6: Self-Revelation

After a great deal of painful struggle, your story character realizes and solves his need that you identified in Stage 1. Demonstrate how this need has been solved. For example, after the Wizard of Oz flies off in his balloon, Dorothy realizes she had the answer to getting home with her all the time. She closes her eyes, repeats "There's no place like home," and clicks her ruby slippers together.

Stage 7: New Equilibrium

Your story character has solved his need, or else lost his opportunity to solve it. Desire (Stage 2) is gone so that he simply will continue to live his life at a

higher (or lower) level than before. For example, Dorothy wakes and discovers Oz was a dream, but is content and happy at home with Auntie Em.


To deliberately incorporate subplots, examine the roles each story component plays in your story.

Start by determining the story arc of your hero's hidden need (strand #2). You will also need to determine how you will solve it. Solution of hidden need typically

falls in the third quarter after the midpoint, and is best done in three stages: hidden need is demonstrated, hidden need is solved, hidden need is shown to be

solved. The Hidden Need being solved is also often demonstrated at the climax of the story. For example, in the film U571 the main character's hidden need is

that he is unable to take command because he views himself as a big brother. The hidden need is first demonstrated when he steps back from a task, solved

when someone tells him he shouldn't step back, and shown to be solved when the main character is placed in another situation that requires leadership and he

fulfills it. Then at the climax, another situation is shown in which the character must lead by sacrificing one of his men.

Next, diagram your outer story (strand #1). Since much of the outer story consists of a series of punch/counterpunch with your main antagonist and other

obstacles, list these events. Now look at the story from the antagonist/obstacle point of view, and see if you can add a subplot here that weaves in nicely (strand


While examining the events in the outer story, determine if you have to set any of these up (strand #4). This strand's events doen't usually require a story arc,

merely a physically series of actions to set up a believable solution.

Finally, write down your main character's basic, fundamental emotional problem. Once you have this you can then invent another character with an identical

story problem, even if the outer manifestation isn't the same. For example, if your main character's hidden need is that he's afraid to lead, your mirror character

might be arrogant and overeager to take command -- the fundamental problem will be an inability to lead well (strand #5). Strand #5 subplots are often the most

interesting and involved to incorporate, and profoundly reinforce your story theme. They generally require the most deliberate development of story arc/story

structure as explained above.


Weaving subplots into your story can be a complex endeavor, but greatly enhance all story elements by both contrasts and reinforcements. Once you have your main story line worked out, take some time to contemplate additional story lines and events you may wish to incorporate. Remember that scenes can double to have more than one function. Play with these ideas to create something truly special in your writing.

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