Sit down class ... "Sitcom Writing 101" is in session. Today's topic ... writing the subplot for a family oriented situation comedy.
The goal of a good subplot is to either complement the main plot or, even better, to somehow tie it in with the main plot. There's plenty of inspiration to find these little stories, and where that inspiration comes from is varied.
Now, let's view a perfect example of how an A-plot and the subplot can work together. (Teacher cues up the Season 4 DVD of The Brady Bunch. Familiar theme plays.) Class, we're going to watch The Brady Bunch episode "Today, I Am a Freshman," and when you get done seeing it, you'll see how the plot and subplot worked together.
Basically, the episode is a "first-day-of-school" story, with Greg starting his junior year at Westdale High and Marcia an incoming freshman. Marcia is sick with worry about how she'll be accepted by her new classmates, particularly since (because of geographical boundaries), most of her classmates at Filmore Junior High were sent to other high school districts while Westdale High only has a few friendly, fellow faces. Typical of many American high schools which draw from multiple junior high schools, everyone else she's never met before. Marcia frets and doesn't even go to school on her first day.
However, after some quick consoling to relax her nerves, Mike and Carol are able to convince Marcia to go to school. And to help give her a big boost, Greg is recruited to introduce her around. Marcia, however, wants to act mature and prove she's not in junior high anymore ... she's a freshman who's "looking forward to the intellectual stimulation" of high school. This gives Greg's friends the wrong idea about her, and Marcia runs to her room in tears, particularly after hearing Greg vent about how she made a fool out of herself and him. Greg realizes Marcia overheard the whole thing and goes to apologize.
Marcia then tries to make friends by joining clubs ... lots of clubs. Lots and lots of clubs. There's yoga, and scuba and karate and ceramics, to name a few. But then, there's the most prestigious club in school: The Boosters. This club yes, it's apparently school sanctioned is really a bunch of snobbish girls who adhere to strict social rules, including dress and who they associate with. Marcia feels that this is the quick ticket to popularity.
OK, that's our A-plot, class. What about that subplot you've been hearing about? Ah yes, it's been ongoing.
Peter is an eighth-grader at Filmore Junior High, and has been assigned to make a science project. He ultimately decides on building a working model of a volcano, complete with a plastery substance to resemble the lava. Early on, he tries to hook up various-sized batteries but can't get it to work.
And then, friends, our two subplots merge.
Marcia (A-plot) has provisionally been accepted into the Boosters, but has to pass one final test the home visit. The Boosters want to make sure they approve of Marcia's home and lifestyle before formally accepting her. Marcia meets with the club president and several of the girls, and they agree to extend the formal invitation.
Just as the final details are being outlined and the rules explained always a catch, Marcia Peter (subplot) comes in with an old car battery. Marcia tries to tell Peter, "not now," but Peter insists he won't be any trouble. He hooks up the volcano's electrical mechanism to the battery, snaps the cables ... smoke billows from the top ... and BANG!!!!!!! Mud and muck fly everywhere, all over Marcia and all over the Booster Club members!
The girls are screaming and sliding all over the place as Peter is ecstatic that he got his volcano to work. Marcia then realizes, "Hey, this is pretty funny" and begins laughing at how her visit with these girls took an absurd turn. The girls are hardly amused and, since they see Marcia thinks it's so funny, they promptly de-invite her from the Boosters. Marcia still laughing agrees that she's not Booster Club material and the girls walk off in a huff, with the lead girl biting her tongue when Carol and Alice try to offer them towels to wipe off.
Marcia realizes that it's no loss to her that she's not a Booster, and decides that only the ceramics club is really her cup of tea. And Marcia has Peter and that silly volcano of his to thank for making her see that.
And now, class, you see how a good subplot can affect the outcome of the main plot.
Keep in mind subplots take on many flavors, and we'll get into that in more detail a little bit later. But this variety of subplot the B-plot eventually merging with the main plot is a very common one and, with some clever writing and plot twists, can make for a memorable episode. "Today, I Am a Freshman" is a perfect example of what I mean.
Any questions? ... .
Tropes present in this episode:
- Alpha Bitches:
- Lots and lots of them in "The Boosters," the elite group of high school students with strict rules and social mores that Marcia is trying to join.
- On Marcia's first day partly to relieve her nerves she comes off as an Alpha Bitch to Greg's friends, using a conceited, super intelligent persona to try to win them over and show she's not an immature junior-high student anymore.
- Be Yourself: The lesson Marcia ultimately learns. After she makes a fool of herself at school to Greg's friends with her Alpha Bitch persona, Marcia immediately beats herself up over it, but Greg confides in her she has nothing to worry about his friends can sometimes be jerks, too. Reinforced when her meeting with the Boosters goes (not so horribly) wrong.
- Big Man on Campus: Greg, clearly, which is why Mike asks his eldest son to introduce Marcia around and help ease her nerves. Greg's status as the true BMOC would be parodied in the later movies, where Greg is a clueless geek who think's he's the epitome of cool.
- Girl Posse: The Boosters. Several of the key members, including its snooty president, visit the Bradys to make sure they approve of Marcia.
- I Just Want to Have Friends: Why Marcia joins every club ... most of her old friends from as far back as early elementary school are now attending different high schools, and she'll have to make a lot of new ones. The potential consequences of her joining the Boosters are apparently not nearly as dire as many other sitcoms where this trope is featured (i.e., the Boosters don't seem to be ones to condone crime) but the aesop that results is still clear: "Be yourself."
- Playing Sick: Marcia, early in the episode when she is incredibly apprehensive about attending a high school where she doesn't know most of her classmates.
- School Club Stories: Quick gag scenes where Marcia joins every club in school, from yoga and scuba to karate (she flips Greg onto his back) and the one club she really wants to join: ceramics.
- Science Project: Peter's model volcano, which he can't get to work ... until the final scene.