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How Subplots Illuminate Theme


Some writers can pen eloquent scene descriptions. Some can build rich characters with crisp dialogue. Still others are masters of plot. You need all these and more to create a compelling story. But what holds it all together is the theme. And the easiest way to spot the theme is to look at the subplot or subplots.

Subplots stand out because they deviate from the main narrative. And like every other part of a good story, the subplot should address the theme. So look for the commonality between the main narrative and the subplot and you can quickly decipher the theme.

In the 2019 film Judy, Judy Garland befriends a gay couple, Stan and Dan. This subplot features two minor characters facing a similar theme. Like her, they were unable to control their fate.

In the 2011 film Margin Call, Sam Rogers’ dog is dying. It’s a metaphor for his investment firm, also dying of something he cannot control. He struggles throughout the story to help his dog, but ultimately loses the fight.

So let’s say your theme has something to do with “control.” Your protagonist might be trying to tame the world or struggle with the antagonist for control of the world. Then your subplot(s) should address the “control” theme as well.

  • A wife controlling her husband

  • The husband trying to control his dog

  • A child struggling to control a kite in the wind

If you have multiple subplots, they should all support the dominant theme. If you have multiple themes, adding subplots to the minor themes gets pretty confusing, pretty quickly.

Resolving a subplot before the emotional high point of the story reminds the audience of the theme — giving the protagonist’s cathartic moment greater impact. Although you can’t always do that within the logical flow of your story.

But however you choose to design your story, the subplot is the simplest way to illuminate your theme.