Hi, I’m Michael. This is Lessons from the Screenplay. Hidden Figures is the story of three African-American women whose contributions to NASA remained an unknown story for a long time. But despite being about all three of these characters, the film—like most stories—has a single, central protagonist in Katherine Johnson.
The film might have focused solely on this one character, but the real Katherine Johnson insisted it be about her peers as well. “Her request was: ‘Look, if you’re going to do a movie about me, it can’t just be about me. There was a team. There were these amazing women. They need to be heralded too.’” In order to include the stories of Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, the screenwriters made them subplots.
So today, I want to look at the elements of a subplot… To analyze the ways in which a subplot enhances the main plot… And examine how a bunch of little stories can form a single cohesive film and be used to symbolize change. Let’s take a look at Hidden Figures. A subplot is a secondary story that receives less screentime and emphasis than the main plot. While it may never intersect with the main plot, a subplot should still support the protagonist’s story.
In his book “Story,” Robert McKee writes: “If a subplot doesn’t thematically contradict or resonate the Controlling Idea of the main plot, if it doesn’t set up the introduction of the main plot’s Inciting Incident, or complicate the action on the main plot, if it merely runs alongside, it will split the story down the middle and destroy its effect.” Essentially, the subplot must enhance the main plot, one way or another. In Hidden Figures, the subplots do this in two ways.
First, they resonate the theme of the main plot. While the protagonist, Katherine Johnson, is fighting for respect and equality in the Space Task Group, Mary is fighting for respect and equality via the courts, and Dorothy is fighting for respect and equality in the realm of new technology. All three of their stories center around the same theme.
The second way the subplots enhance the main plot is by fleshing out the story world. In Mary’s storyline, we learn about the absence of female engineers at NASA, as well as the continued segregation of the school system in Virginia. In Dorothy’s storyline, we witness civil rights protests, and see her get kicked out of a library for not staying in the quote-unquote “colored” section.
The racism and sexism that Katherine faces in her storyline is given greater context through the stories of Mary and Dorothy. Even the romantic subplot between Jim Johnson and Katherine connects thematically. “We calculate the mathematics necessary to enable launch and landing for the Space Program.” “They let women handle that sort of-“ “That’s not what I mean.”
This love story demonstrates how the struggle for respect and equality occurs in the characters’ personal lives as well. Together, the subplots create a sense of thematic unity, and provide a more detailed and powerful picture of the obstacles inherent in the story world. So how do you design a subplot? What story beats should it have, and when should these beats occur?
What exactly are the elements of a subplot? Subplots tend to have the same basic elements as the main story arc, but with fewer beats and turning points. In Hidden Figures, each subplot has five key elements: Desire, Inciting Incident, Conflict & Struggle, Climax, and Resolution. Let’s map these elements to see how and where they occur in the script. Just as in the main plot, each subplot is driven by a character’s desire.
Mary wants to become an engineer, Dorothy wants to become a supervisor, and Jim Johnson and Katherine want to find love. The desire for the main plot—Katherine’s story—happens on page twenty-one. The desires for Mary and Dorothy’s subplots happen around the same time as Katherine’s, while the love story desire comes in a bit later, after Katherine’s professional challenges have been established. The inciting incidents— the sudden opportunities that start the characters on their journeys— are more spread out than the desires.
Mary’s inciting incident comes just before Katherine’s, when she’s permanently assigned to the engineering team. The love story inciting incident occurs a bit later, on page forty, when Jim and Katherine meet for the first time. And the inciting incident for Dorothy’s subplot doesn’t arrive until page forty-six— over a third of the way through the film—when she sees the IBM being installed.
The timing of the inciting incidents demonstrates the flexibility of subplots. By spacing these out, screenwriters Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi strategically inject momentum into the film as time goes on. Similarly, Schroeder and Melfi use the conflict and struggle of each subplot to keep us engaged. Throughout the middle of the story, the screenplay frequently cuts between each character’s current obstacle.
Mary’s application is denied and she has to petition the court. Dorothy begins to learn programming and must overcome several challenges. And Katherine slowly lets herself fall in love with Jim. There is always something new for us to be following as the narrative drives forward. The climax and resolution of each subplot are spread out, just like the inciting incidents. Mary is victorious in court and begins classes to become an engineer.
Dorothy teaches the women she works with how to program, and becomes a supervisor for the IBM computing lab. And Jim proposes to Katherine, and they get married. Notably, the climax and resolution of each subplot come before the climax of the main plot— which starts on page one hundred thirteen, where Katherine’s calculations are critical to the success of John Glenn’s spaceflight. Each individual subplot is told in just a few beats, taking up only a small portion of the script. But when combined, we see that at any given moment the audience is involved in several different stories— each one enhancing and supporting that of the main plot.
But there is actually even more going on. The protagonist’s storyline itself consists of many smaller storylines— mini-narratives that become the symbols of change. Stories are all about change, and one of the challenges you face as a writer is figuring out how to demonstrate this change to the audience. One way is to use symbols—images, objects, and actions that represent deeper meaning.
In his book “The Anatomy of Story,” John Truby offers a methodology of how to utilize symbols, writing: “Here’s how it works: You start with a feeling and create a symbol that will cause that feeling in the audience. You then repeat the symbol, changing it slightly.” Hidden Figures uses symbols to track the changes in Katherine Johnson and those around her. For example, her first job in the Space Task Group is to double check the math of Paul Stafford, an engineer who resents having his work proof-read. “I’m not going to be able to—“ Stafford: “Work on what you can read.” “The rest is classified, you don’t have clearance.”
This action and the imagery of redacted paperwork quickly comes to represent hostility and exclusion. It is a symbol of the struggle she faces, and the beginning of a mini story arc. Twenty pages later, we see Stafford again handing her redacted documents— but this time she has an idea. By holding the paper up to the light, she’s able to see the classified information and properly do her work.
This mini story arc concludes when Katherine is interrogated and asked how she discovered this classified information. “I held it up to the light.” “You held it up to the light?” “Yes sir.” After explaining herself— “Well, there it is.” —she’s given permission to work on the data without redaction. “Give her everything she needs to work on Shepard’s trajectories. Without redaction. Are we clear on that?”
These four beats demonstrate how Katherine is beginning to claim the respect and equality she deserves. Another example of a mini story arc involves Katherine having to run a half mile to use the “colored” bathrooms— another symbol of the inequality she faces. Again the screenplay makes sure to associate this symbol with a feeling, allowing us to empathize with the need to desperately use the bathroom and the extreme inconvenience of having to run across a campus to do so. We see Katherine have to do this multiple times, until it finally leads to a confrontation where she speaks up for herself.
“There’s no bathroom for me here.” “What do you mean there’s no bathroom for you here?” “There is no bathroom.” “There are no COLORED bathrooms in this building or ANY building outside the West Campus.” “Which is half a mile away! Did you know that?” This is a turning point for her character, and for the characters around her. It causes the Al Harrison character to wake up to his own ignorance of the situation and take action. (sign bangs on the ground) Yet another symbol used to convey change.
And even something as simple as Katherine drinking from the same coffee pot as the engineers becomes a recurring marker of change. It is quickly associated with Katherine being an outsider. The symbol is then modified as she later sees a smaller, separate, coffee pot has appeared with a label that says “colored.” And finally the symbol is brought back at the end of the film as Stafford brings her a cup of coffee, representing their new relationship as equal co-workers.
These are all simple symbols that undergo very clear changes, and express the protagonist’s journey. As Robert McKee writes in “Story”: “…screenwriting is the art of making the mental physical. We create visual correlatives for inner conflict… images of character choice and action to indirectly and ineffably express the thoughts and feelings within.” We tend to think of films as a singular story experience, but if we look closer, we see they’re really an intricate tapestry of many smaller narratives— a collection of arcs which are thematically unified and support each other.