Lately I’ve been watching reruns of the TV crime drama “Major Crimes.” I like the action as the detectives of the Major Crimes unit solve the case. The show is well written and the cases deliciously complicated, which keeps me guessing as to the identity of the perpetrator. But the one major drawback of the show is the subplot involving the character of Rusty, a teenage boy who spent several years alone on the streets of Los Angeles, and his attempts to find his mother. He’s been adopted by the Captain of the Major Crimes unit, though I still keep wondering why a teen-age boy is allowed to wander around the Major Crimes area while the team is trying to solve the case. But more to the point, the subplot interrupts the flow of the main story, which is to solve the damn crime. The subplot annoying and disruptive. We’re taken out of the main story and forced to watch something that has little to do, in most cases, with solving the crime. I, as a viewer of the show, have gotten absorbed in the main story line of each episode, and I don’t want to watch something that has little or nothing to do with the story. I want to see whodunit. The complicated plots make me want to know. Yet, repeatedly, we have to put up with a rather vague, nebulous subplot for several minutes, several times during each one-hour show. Yesterday evening I grew so frustrated that I turned the show off rather than sit through this unnecessary diversion.
Moral of the story, don’t interrupt the action. Keep it going to the end.
A good example of a TV series which kept the action going throughout each hour-long drama is the “Law and Order” series. Most of the episodes I’ve seen didn’t waste time on subplots. Sure, the characters have private lives, and occasionally these were brought into the main story, but the individual episodes invariably stuck to the main story, i.e., solve the damn crime.
Another example of a show that kept the action going and didn’t waste time on personal problems was the old “Mission Impossible” series. Here, the characters (the “good guys”) simply carried out their orders (usually having to do with espionage or some related process) and got the job done. No unnecessary subplots involving human interest that took away from the main story.
I find myself wondering if this isn’t one of the reasons we find commercials so annoying: they take us away from the story while someone yells at us to buy a certain product or service we usually don’t want and don’t need. Sort of a plottus interruptus. This may also be why Alfred Hitchcock always denigrated commercials on his TV series. He knew they interrupted the flow of the story. Not good if you have a detective looking for a murderer.
Now, subplots can work, don’t get me wrong. I’m not against subplots, but they have to be handled well. The important thing to remember is that a subplot must be integral to the story. It must come at a reasonable time in the narrative, and must advance the plot. Not simply interrupt and throw in a different story. A possible good example of this is the movie, “Rocky.” (The first of the series.) The main story line revolves around Rocky Balboa as he trains for his big boxing match with the world champion, having been plucked out of obscurity by the champ and given a chance to become a big-time fighter. Okay. The subplot involves his relationship with his girl friend. The reason this subplot works is that it appears at logical times in the story. Rocky trains during the day, and sees his girl in the evening. Sure, the action slows, but it still involves Rocky. It comes at a reasonable point in the plot, and it doesn’t occur as a sudden interruption in the story line. It’s a smooth transition, not abrupt.
If you are writing a novel or screenplay or short story or even a memoir, keep in mind that whenever you abruptly stop the action and go to something else, especially something quieter in the story, you run the risk of losing your viewer or reader. Keep the action going, even if it slows somewhat. As Aesop said once, “He who hesitates is lost.”