Creating a good plot is essential to screenplay writing, or any other type of fiction. The plot is what drives the story forward. While subplots are a common element used in screenwriting, they can be risky if they are not used properly. Aristotle maintained that a perfect plot has a single issue, and that subplots are the sign of bad writing technique (Tierno). So, if this is true then how have subplots become so predominant in screenwriting today? It is imperative that a writer choose one external conflict and a subplot must be a part of that conflict. For a subplot to work, it must carry the theme of the main action.
In order to establish whether a subplot will work or not, the writer needs to have an understanding of what a subplot really is. Some writers actually call subplots the “A” and “B” story, but either way; a subplot is an extension of the main theme. In other words—subplots are always somehow connected to the main plot. These secondary storylines must enrich, or bring life to the main plot, and they will always help the protagonist in his or her journey toward resolve. For example, in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the central theme is developed around Hamlet’s crazed revenge of his father’s death, and his actions are a result of his need for revenge. There are two subplots in Hamlet: The war with Norway and Ophelia’s relationship to Hamlet. Shakespeare reveals Hamlet’s want in the first act, but complications occur in act two when Hamlet shows up in Ophelia’s chamber in complete disarray after Ophelia has just learned that he is loosing his love interest in her. Ophelia is not overly surprised, because she is aware of his confused mental state. The plot thickens when Ophelia shares about Hamlet’s sudden visit with Polonius:
O, my lord, my lord, I have been so affrighted!
With what, in the name of God?
My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced;
Ungarter’d, and down-gyved to his ancle;
Pale in his shirt; his knees knocking each other;
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors, — he comes before me.
Mad for thy love?
My lord, I do not know;
But truly, I do fear it.
In the above scene, Shakespeare uses Ophelia’s character to create conflict and further establish the question of Hamlet’s sanity. It is important to note the Ophelia and Hamlet have been life-long friends, so for her to “fear” his love, and have this kind of intense concern, it is somewhat disquieting.
In an article written by Amanda Mabillard, which is posted on Shakespeare Online, she says, “There are three plots in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: the main revenge plot and two subplots involving the romance between Hamlet and Ophelia, and the looming war with Norway.” Shakespeare uses the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia to highlight a different aspect of the one external conflict—Hamlet’s settling of scores.
Everyone loves a good romance story, but the supposed romance between Hamlet and Ophelia turns sour. By the third Act, Hamlet verbally assaults her, wounding the poor young maiden’s heart and rendering her hopelessly insane; she drowns in Act four. Laetres blames Hamlet and vows revenge. Shakespeare uses the actions of these characters to continue create tension in the story and to enhance Hamlet’s disposition and emphasize his off-kilter state-of-mind.
For a subplot to work effectively, additional characters must remain central to the primary plot. In Sylvester Stallone’s famous screenplay Rocky, the main plot is the fight. Where Hamlet’s motive for action was the revenge of his father’s death, Rocky Balboa’s motive for action is the big fight. Rocky’s relationship with his manager and his wife are a way for the author to introduce different points of view, while supporting the plot and driving it forward. The relationships that Rocky has with these two characters help to create secondary plots. They do not take away from Rocky and his goal, but add a sense of depth to his character and bring humanness to Rocky. For example, Rocky’s trainer Mickey sees potential in the young 25-year-old fighter, but throughout most of the screenplay, there is a lot of friction between Rocky and Mickey. Stallone wittingly uses this resistance between the two characters to produce the wanted results in the end…Rocky will fight. Note the following excerpt from a scene between Rocky and Mickey:
Ya want the truth – Ya got heart, but ya fight like an ape –
The only thing special about you is ya never got ya
nose broke – – keep ya nose pretty – -what’s left of ya
brain an’ retire.
ROCKY [ignoring his comment]
Listen, I’m gonna take a steam – –
Did good last night – – Shoulda seen it.
MICKEY [ignoring Rocky’s comment]
Hey, ever think about retirin’
…Think about it.
The above scene is good psychology. Mickey knows that if he can get Rocky mad enough he will step up to the plate and give his all, and then he will have a good chance fighting in the fight that will land him the title. Stallone uses Mickey like the sound of a nail against a chalkboard. This trainer wants to get under Rocky’s skin and push him on the journey toward his goal—the fight. In the final scene, Rocky makes it to the fight, and Stallone pulls the stops out as he keeps the audience/reader suspended in thin air and he is going for the heavyweight title against the undefeated Apollo Creed. When everyone expects Rocky to ultimately win, Stallone pulls a fast one –it’s a “split decision!”
Ladies and gentlemen – We have a split decision!
ANOTHER ANGLE Apollo did not expect this and tenses. His corner nervously tries to reassure him. It does no good. ANOTHER ANGLE Rocky did not expect this either and looks in confusion at Mickey, but Mickey is frozen with anticipation.
Judge Walker scores it eight- seven Creed…
Judge Roseman scores it eight-seven Balboa(…)
winner and still Heavyweight Champion of the
world, Apollo Creed!
Keep in mind that the goal is the fight, and even though Rocky technically loses, his loss
makes the audience/reader love him all the more. Mickey’s response to Rocky after the
winner is announced is not only touching, it also adds a sense of humanness to their
relationship. In almost father-like fashion Mickey affirms to Rocky his admiration as he
says, “I don’t care what they say, you’re a winner.”
Subplots are not additional obstacles randomly thrown into a screenplay;
they reflect the central conflict of the main plot.
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Other references: WriterDuet.com – Screenwriting online…it’s easy, SSL secure and free!