View Full Version : Sub-Plots or Sub-Stories?

11-01-2006, 08:26 AM
I hope I put this in the right place. Anyway, there's something I guess I understand, but don't totally agree with.

Over and over I've heard about a story/screenplay needing a sub-plot. Right now, I'm watching "The Unit" on TV. I'm just wondering if this is the 'modern' way to write. This show is not 'a story.' It is two different stories in the same show. Totally unrelated, totally separate. The truth is, I find it aggravating. I'm watching this show to see "The Unit." However, they keep changing to what the wives are doing, which has nothing to do with what The Unit is doing. As a viewer, I'm finding myself being confused by trying to keep up with two completely different stories within one show.

I could understand if what the wives are doing would, in some way, have something to do with what their husbands are doing. This, however, is not the case. Neither has anything to do with the other. In fact, just as the story gets going, they switch to the other one....then back and forth, back and forth.

Am I missing something, or are there others who feel the same way? A sub-plot I can understand (what's going on between two or more people involved in the main plot). However, two totally different stories within the same show just aggravates me (I tuned in to watch The Unit, and want to keep up with what they're doing). So, what is the point in this type of writing? As I said in the beginning, am I missing something? I guess I could use some enlightenment on this.

Thanks for any thoughts....

11-01-2006, 08:42 AM
I haven't seen "The Unit", so I can't speak on that specific example. (However, from what I remember of previews, it seems they presented that aspect as part of the show - how the job affects the families of the soldiers.)

To answer your general question:

No, you don't need a subplot or 'B plot'. Many fine stories have been told without them.

But they can be a valuable tool.

You can use them to enrich the A plot. To offer comic or dramatic relief. To supply twists. To further explore a theme. To smooth out your timeline or plot.

Or the most common use for them - to develop the protagonist's internal struggles, which are rarely the literal business of the A plot.

In my opinion, while you don't need one, most good stories have at least one.

11-01-2006, 12:26 PM
When you're writing for television, you need to try and follow the format of the show you're writing a spec for. For instance, if you're going to write a Simpsons episode, you need an A story with homer or bart, and B story with whichever of the two isn't the A story.

11-01-2006, 12:31 PM
I haven't seen the Unit so I can't tell. But I assume there is a reason for this? Perhaps the two plotlines converge at some point? If the two stories are given equal time and are of equal value, then neither of them is a sub-plot. They are both story threads.
My first novel was written like this. I had three characters, completely unconnected. Living in different countries and even different continents. Each chapter was devoted to a different character. The reader had to follow each thread, each charater seperately. But the astute reader knows, assumes, theat they are somehow connected, and perseveres, and in time the reader begins to get, or at least guess at, the connections. As we get nearer to the end the three plotlines converge and become one.
Its like a plait (braid for you Americans).
I would advise patience with the show, though as I said I can't tell from here. If they really are two separate stories than never converge it is indeed annoying.

11-01-2006, 02:50 PM
Hi Mystified - I'm not a show watcher so I can't comment on that particular aspect. I will second Aruna in saying that using multiple plots or threads that tie together before the end of the story is an acceptable way of writing - at least I hope it is (I have two WIPs I've written that way). Puma

Linda Adams
11-01-2006, 03:43 PM
This used to drive me crazy with the Star Trek books. They'd have a B story which was only very, very loosely tied into the main story (i.e., they couldn't have the Enterprise rescue the landing party too soon, so they would get called away for a rescue). The B stories always seemed rather superficial, and you're right, it was aggravating. I felt like I was being kicked out of the story each time we went to the B story.

With TV, they HAVE to fill a certain amount of time. I suspect the B story exists because the A story isn't enough to do that.

11-01-2006, 06:34 PM
In The Unit, the wives' stories are not directly related to what's going on in the Unit proper. There are overlaps, but it's more that everything the wives do is always under the shadow of the lives their husbands lead.

It's not a subplot.

But two stories being a problem? Ever watched a soap opera?

The Unit is incredibly well written and well acted. Maybe you should record or Tivo the show, then watch it and blip through the wives. Or watch it twice, pretend it's two shows and blip through the one you aren't watching then watch the other half.

At least that way you won't miss the part you like.

11-01-2006, 11:05 PM
I haven't watched the unit, but like Aruna and Puma, I would imagine that eventually the two plots will converge...if not, then I'd have to agree that it sounds rather frustrating. I've read a number of books that do this, and it can get aggravating if the switch happens *right* when you're getting back into the mindset of whichever thread you're following. Conversely, if done right you'll find yourself so pleased with each thread that the jumps are exciting.

I think that the show Lost is a really good example of multiple timelines/threads done in a way that works. In each episode, the events happening on the island are interspersed with flashbacks to an event in the life of one of the characters, from before they ever came to the island. And even though the storyline in the flashback may be totally different than the storyline on the island, the flashback always reveals something about the character that directly relates to how they are handling the current situation or why they are the way now. There is a very, very strong connection between the two story threads, and because of that, it works--something is revealed in the flashbacks that brings new light to the island storyline. If theres not a strong connection, or enough hints that eventually there will be a connection, then it can come off as disjointed to the reader. If you can pull it off though, I think sometimes the reader can enjoy putting the connections together themselves and figuring out how it all relates. Its a tricky balance i guess.

11-02-2006, 12:33 AM
Each TV show has their own rules. I saw some bits of The Unit, and tuned out as soon as the wives started chattering. Maybe they think that's supposed to add a dimension to the story, or reach out to new viewers, but I'm sure it bores a lot of people. When it flops, it flops.

Then there's the decision of the last few Star Treks to suck the life out of every story and make sure nobody ever performs or shows any emotion. Way to kill a show.

I stopped watching E.R. because I got tired of the soap opera part of it. Oh, and the rule that it had to be so darn depressing.

Some shows pull off subplots nicely. Other times it's so obviously a formula. Why does C.S.I. always have to have two cases that only meet in the hallway? Grr. Other shows will pick one character and beat on them for an episode, then pick another victim next week. Or the dreaded "pick a character and meet their parents" episodes.

You can throw lots of characters at the fan (like Stephen King) so that every reader can relate to someobody. If you focus on just two characters you had better make them good, because there's no backup plan.

Your script doesn't "have to" do anything, except tell a good story. But if your goal is to write for TV, you better be ready for insane requirements to intrude.

11-02-2006, 12:39 AM
I've seen an episode of The Unit, and that issue bugged me, too. The wives just seemed very banal compared to the other story line. Maybe that was the point, I don't know.

I'm sure this technique is someone's cup of tea, but it's not mine. It's just irritating; invariably, I like one group better than the other and hate waiting to find out what's happening to them. Or, worse, the second group is actively annoying but I'm afraid to skip over in case I miss something that will be important later.

Which isn't to say some degree of that isn't fine; if everyone meets up eventually and both storylines have bearing on the story itself, it's pretty neat.

As far as subplots go, I always thought they were issues that are woven into the story that aren't the main story but clarify it, contrast with it, or otherwise highlight the main story.

Say, a budding romance between two minor characters that progresses fairly smoothly, giving the heroine a chance to reflect on her turbulent relationship with the hero. Or a fundraiser the heroine is supposed to be running while she tries to figure out who killed her neighbor that's a hassle for most of the book but eventually provides indirect insight into the killer's motives.

I'm not sure how you'd write a novel without any subplots. Multiple storylines, on the other hand, is a technique some authors use well and some don't.

11-02-2006, 12:49 AM
I've seen part of one episode of The Unit. Just not my cuppa, I'm afraid. But it sounds like they're trying to expand their demographic by including the two separate storylines. They must figure the women want to know about the wives, the guys want the action of the men.

I prefer when stories intertwine. It's much more interesting if all the characters, the ones you like and the ones you don't, all have contact with each other, influencing each other's lives. Now I'm thinking of Desperate Housewives. If you don't like one storyline, with one set of characters, sure as shooting you'll like another. And, just as surely, the characters you like will move through each of the other storylines at some point.

11-02-2006, 04:06 AM
I haven't seen The Unit, but watch We Were Soldiers. It had the wives and the soldiers look, but they were very much tied to each other, and it was executed beautifully.

11-02-2006, 04:06 AM
I'm not sure how you'd write a novel without any subplots. Multiple storylines, on the other hand, is a technique some authors use well and some don't.

For me, the best example of a recent TV show that used multiple storylines was "Oz." It boasted a cast of about fifteen regulars, and at least six different storylines per episode. There was always a single arc that tied the episode together, but the characters went about their lives and did their thing (usually involving violence, boxing, eating ground glass, drug dealing, and racism). So much happened that I felt like I was watching a two hour film, rather than 55 minutes of television.

In order to write a novel like that, you would have to excel at jugging many unique, well-written, fully-formed characters. Some people spend so much time fleshing out their MC, that they have no juice left for the supporting crew. But every storyline has to be just as compelling as the next.

11-02-2006, 07:14 AM
I want to thank all of you for posting your thoughts. I guess the part I can't buy is that I'm watching some guys suddenly surrounded by other guys aiming machine guns at them, then I'm watching some wives selling real estate. Just not my thing, I guess. I do agree that both stories are well-written and well-acted. I like the characters, and there is real talent here. I just don't like this thing of two separate, unconnected stories. I'd rather watch one which leads to a conclusion, or at least two where there is a common tie later on. I'm not seeing this in "The Unit." Anyway, it's just my personal opinion, and I wondered how others felt about it. I did read your replies, and (as I said), I do appreciate you posting your comments. :) Best to all....

11-03-2006, 06:16 AM
I think sub-plots can be amazing, but they have to be pulled off correctly. If done poorly, it's confusing and frustrating. I can't tell you how many times I've been reading a book, and been mad as hell because they kept interrupting the story I was actually interested in with a bunch of crap that didn't matter.

11-07-2006, 11:31 PM
With The Unit you are watching parrell (sp?) stories that often have the same theme but told in different perspective. By the end of the evening you have the resolution for each story that "sort-of" mirrors the central theme that night. Hope this makes sense, but it is something I've noticed in many television shows, and it is used as a subplot pointing out that the central theme or problem is similar in each story.

Last night was a good example. Soldiers helping friends; wives helping friends. Both end up in trouble.