Using Multiple Subplots in a Story

Every story has a structure. By identifying the main scenes in every story, you can create an outline for any story quickly and easily. One problem when creating a story is that so much happens as multiple characters pursue different goals that it’s easy to lose track of what’s going on. 

Every story consists of multiple subplots involving the:

  • Hero
  • Villain
  • Mentor
  • Ally 

The key to having so many subplots occurring at the same time is that every subplot focuses on the same theme. In “Legally Blonde,” the theme is that a woman doesn’t need a man to be strong and powerful. That means the various subplots in “Legally Blonde” look like this:

  • Hero (Elle) – Trying to become a lawyer and prove she can be strong without a man.
  • Villains (Ex-boyfriend, his fiancé, and the hero’s law professor) – Trying to keep the hero oppressed into thinking she’s nothing without a man.
  • Mentor (Lawyer helping the law professors) – Trying to encourage the hero to be strong on her own.
  • Ally (Hairdresser, classmate) – Trying to be strong enough on their own and find love.

While the hero struggles with trying to be a strong, independent woman, the villains she faces have no problems being strong and independent. This makes them an evil, more powerful version of the hero.

No matter how many subplots a story has, if they’re all similar, then they support the same theme. If every subplot is different, then each subplot would fail to support a single theme and thus create a mess. The key is to identify the emotional change the hero must go through and that’s the identical or nearly identical change the mentor and ally must go through as well. 

In “Die Hard,” the main emotional change the hero goes through is changing from arrogant to humble. Since arrogance is the hero’s main character flaw, that same flaw appears in nearly all the other major characters like this:

  • Hero (John McClane) – Trying to get back with his wife.
  • Villain (Hans the terrorist leader) – Trying to kill the hero, which will keep him from getting back with his wife.
  • Mentor (Officer Powell) – Trying to encourage the hero and overcome his own reluctance to draw a gun after accidentally shooting a kid.
  • Ally (Limousine driver) – Trying to do a good job as a new driver.

In “Back to the Future,” the main emotional change in the hero involves lacking confidence in himself to gaining confidence in himself. While the hero lacks confidence in himself, the villain is loaded with confidence. This battle between lack of confidence and confidence affects the other major characters like this:

  • Hero (Marty McFly) – Trying to gain confidence in himself.
  • Villain (Biff) – Loaded with confidence, the villain wants to force himself on the hero’s mother.
  • Mentor (Doc) – Trying to prove he can invent something that actually works.
  • Ally (George McFly, the hero’s father) – Trying to gain confidence in himself.

Whatever emotional dilemma the hero faces (such as trying to gain confidence in themselves), that’s the same emotional dilemma the mentor and ally face as well. Meanwhile, the villain represents the opposite. If the hero’s struggling to gian confidence, the villain already has confidence. If the hero’s struggling to become a strong, independent person, the villain is already a strong, independent person. 

The hero, mentor, and ally share the same emotional character flaw.

The villain represents the opposite of the character flaw. 

Exercise: Pick a favorite movie and identify the hero, villain, mentor, and ally. How is the hero’s emotional dilemma reflected in the mentor’s and ally’s character flaw? How does the villain represent an evil, more powerful version of the hero?

In your own story, identify your hero’s emotional dilemma. Your hero, mentor, and ally represent the limiting belief that holds them back. Your villain represents an evil version of the empowering belief. 

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