Okay, raise your hand out there if you watch ER or Grey’s Anatomy. It’s okay, no one can see you. And, not like I’m raising MY hand or anything, but hypothetically, let’s just say that if you are familiar with these particular medical (and I’m using that term a bit freely) dramas, then you know that they are really big long soap operas. Greys is, essentially, the on again, off again, hopefully on again (not that I would know) romance of Dr. Derrick McDreamy and Dr. Meredith Grey. Inside all this romance are the daily (read: episodic) events of a hospital in Seattle.
What makes Grey’s kinda cute are the running monologues of the lead heroine, the thematic nuances she puts into the story, usually centered around the events of the episode, but also alluding to her current state of relationship with Derrick. One could say that the episode theme relates to the overall story arc of the series.
Episodes in a show like this act as subplots to the main story. They are by subplot definition: Short, but concise stories that reveal theme, and, taken alone would stand on their own merit.
Let’s take one of my favorites (er, I mean, one that I’ve heard about…oh, forget it, I’m a Grey’s addict. I admit it). ..the Bomb in the Body episode. (Also had Kyle Friday Night Lights guy (formerly Early Edition) guest starring, and I just love him). The subplot starts with the inciting incident: fella comes in with a hole in his gut. Paramedic is holding onto the bleeding inside his body. Conflict: If she takes her hand out, then he’ll bleed to death, so they have to take them up to surgery. Further conflict: Wife comes in and reveals that the man was playing with a bazooka – there is an unexploded bomb in his body. More conflict: Paramedic freaks out, pulls her hand from his body, wherein Dr. Grey takes her place.
Of course, she’s doomed, and the rest of the show is her wishing that she could turn back time and rethink where she is right now.
Meanwhile, in the BIG plot, Derrick, the Dr. and she have had an affair, and she’s in love with him UNTIL just a few weeks prior his WIFE (and poor Meredith didn’t even know she existed until then) shows up. Derrick wants a divorce…he thinks. But, maybe not, so he decides to give his marriage another chance. Meredith’s heart is broken. She wishes she could turn back time and rethink her life. See the parallel?
Of course, they get the bomb out of the body, and sadly, as cute Kyle walks away with it, it blows up. He’s vaporized. And Meredith is left with blood all over her, a casualty of another person’s error in judgment. Of course, the patient who wreaked all this havoc, lives.
Again, see the parallel to the main story arc?
A great subplot is about mirroring the theme of the main plot. It can either enhance it – ie, show what could happen if one choice is made, or put it in relief – show what will happen if that choice isn’t made. It can be a testing ground for “what if.”
I’ve had a lot of fun with recent subplots — my biggest being the subplot within a subplot I put into Taming Rafe – a love story written by one of the characters that reveals the feelings the character has for a woman he’s never declared his love to, written via the romance of the characters in HIS book, a book that the POV characters in Rafe all read. (Okay, did that make sense? Basically, it’s a story within a story). In Finding Stefanie, I used the young romance of a former gang-banger to reveal how a little faith in someone can change their entire life – and how the hero’s life might have be affected if he allows himself to have faith in Stefanie.
As you’re developing your subplot, ask yourself – what lesson will the characters in my main plot learn? Is there a smaller lesson, or a piece of that lesson I can illuminate through the subplot?
Remember, also, a subplot has to have all the elements of a story: Inciting incident, conflict, black moment, epiphany and a climatic ending.
And, here’s a hint – it needs to start at least three chapters in, and end at least three chapters before the main story ends. And, to keep it flowing, I usually put in one subplot pov per every 4-5 main povs. That way I keep the subplot flowing without overwhelming the main plot.
Great subplot/layer examples! Keep ‘em coming. We’ll continue taking comments through the weekend.
Rach and I are both out of town this weekend, so, if you have any subplot questions, hurl them at us in the comments (or Voices) and we’ll try and answer. Have a GREAT Labor Day Weekend!