What about subplots?

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:

OPHELIA

O, my lord, my lord, I have been so affrighted!

LORD POLONIUS

With what, in the name of God?

OPHELIA

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.

LORD POLONIUS

Mad for thy love?

OPHELIA

My lord, I do not know;

But truly, I do fear it.

(Shakespeare, 2:1)

hamlet90-3-1c-1

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:

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’

ROCK

…No.

MICKEY

…Think about it.

Mickey

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!”

ANNOUNCER

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.

ANNOUNCER

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.”

Remember…
Subplots are not additional obstacles randomly thrown into a screenplay;

they reflect the central conflict of the main plot.

For screenplay coaching and/or editing:  carlaiacovetti.com

Other references: WriterDuet.com – Screenwriting online…it’s easy, SSL secure and free!

 

 

Advertisements

To Subplot or Not to Subplot: That is the Question

What is the purpose of a subplot? Well-written subplots should enhance the story in a different way, emphasize the theme and resolve by the end of the story. In addition, at some point, your subplot(s) must intersect with the main story and push the story forward to the end. Much like rivers and streams dumping into the same ocean.

The beauty about well-crafted subplots are that they can help weave dimension and complexity into the central plot, but they must be cautiously integrated and they must stay relevant to the theme. A good subplot should hike-up the drama by making it harder for the protagonist to achieve his or her goal. In other words, subplots effectiveness are dependent on the conflict that they bring to the protagonist.

The writer MUST maintain control over the main plot while bringing in a subplot. Robert McKee says, “The balance of emphasis between the central plot and subplot has to be carefully controlled, or the writer risks losing focus on the primary story.”

Here are a list of things that subplots do:
They introduce new characters
– They enhance your main story/plot.
– They can be the mirror opposite of your main story.
– They can introduce new characters.
– They can reveal the back-story of the main plot, and they always enhance the theme.
– They reveal exposition.
– They show simultaneous action that happens along side your main plot.
– They supply tension and conflict.

Subplots are also often referred to as the “B” story, which is a secondary story. Often times, it’s a love story that’s introduced into the storyline, and while it MUST support the main theme, it gives us a little breather from the central story. It’s like a temporary diversion.