COLUMN D: Respect the Subplot

Drew Yanno is a screenwriter, author, script consultant and teacher. Follow Drew on Twitter @drewyanno.

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COLUMN D: Respect the Subplot by Drew Yanno | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Let me ask you a simple screenwriting question – How often do you think about subplots?

I’d be willing to bet that if you’re an aspiring screenwriter, you don’t give much thought to your subplots. At least not compared to other aspects of the craft.

Dialogue? I’m sure that’s at or near the top of your list (it shouldn’t be).

Story structure? This should be at the top, but likely is behind dialogue for you.

Subplots? I hear crickets…

When I was teaching screenwriting back at Boston College, I would tell every class the same tired line about subplots: “They add depth and texture to your story.”

That’s like your mother telling you to drink eight glasses of water a day. You know it’s good for you. You now it’s wise advice, but you forget about it thirty seconds later, as you order another macchiato from Starbucks.

I bring this up because I was browsing channels the other night and came across the Hitchcock masterpiece Rear Window, a film I taught every semester in my adaptation class.

For those of you who don’t know, Rear Window is based on the Cornell Woolrich short story “It Had to Be Murder.” That short story contains most of the basic elements you see in Hitchcock’s film. The bones are all there.

However, the brilliant screenwriter of Rear Window, the late John Michael Hayes, supplied two of the best elements of the film version. One was completely absent in Woolrich’s story, while the other was only hinted at. Both involve – you guessed it – subplots.

The first thing Hayes did was create a love interest in the character of Lisa played by the radiant Grace Kelly. There was no love interest in Woolrich’s story. Completely absent.

A treatment written by Joshua Logan prior to the Hayes script did contain a love interest, but that woman did not even remotely resemble the Lisa character created by Hayes.

The reason the Lisa character adds so much to the story in the film version is that she is a fashion model who desperately wants to marry Jimmy Stewart’s L.B. Jeffries, a rugged photographer for some fictional version of Life Magazine.

This creates the emotional conflict at the heart of the film (and the principal subplot) because Jeffries thinks a marriage with Lisa can’t work because she loves New York and the world of fashion while he loves being a photographer covering dangerous stories all around the globe.

Which brings me to the second element created by Hayes that was absent from the Woolrich source material: all the other neighbors that Jeffries observes from his window, in addition to the murderous Lars Thorwald.

Let’s take them one at a time.

First is “Miss Lonelyhearts,” a middle-aged woman who lives alone and appears desperate for a husband.

The next is “Miss Torso,” a beautiful and lithe dancer who appears to be single and hotly pursued by a number of men.

Then there’s “the Songwriter” who is struggling to write a sad ballad that causes Jeffries to suspect that he must have had “an unhappy marriage.”

Next are the obvious “newlyweds” who can’t keep their hands off each other, while across the courtyard is a “middle-aged couple” who is comfortable enough in their relationship to sleep outside on the fire escape to beat the heat.

These are all in comparison to the main plot involving Lars Thorwald whose apartment is across from Jeffries’ and whose marriage is so bad that Thorwald chooses murder over divorce in order to be with his paramour. (As you probably know, Jeffries is home-bound with a broken leg and forced to amuse himself by looking out his apartment window.)

Notice how each of these secondary characters is at a different place in the “marriage” gradient, from “no prospects” to “lots of prospects” to “newlyweds” to “lasting marriage” to “marital discord.”

All of them are on display for Jeffries, who just happens to be pondering the prospect of marriage himself, as he wonders about the suspicious actions of his neighbor Thorwald. That my friends is “depth and texture.”

Later on in the story, when Lisa performs a “dangerous” task for Jeffries (entering the murderer’s apartment to look for proof of the murder), Jeffries comes to realize how much he loves her and how capable she is of facing danger with him and for him, thereby proving his fears about their potential union to be unfounded.

Of course, in the end the murder is exposed, Lisa is safely back in Jeffries’ apartment, and they are well on the way to that successful marriage. As it should, the denouement revisits all those neighbors, resolving those subplots with some unexpected results.

The lesson for you, the aspiring screenwriter, is to respect your subplots. They often make the movie. If you think Rear Window is unique in this regard, then go back and take a closer look at some Oscar-winning films like Thelma & Louise, Good Will Hunting, Rocky, Witness, Moonstruck and Casablanca, all of which were vastly enhanced by their many and rich subplots.

As you may know, subplots grow mainly out of secondary characters. But the “depth and texture” aspect of them is best enhanced by tying them to the movie’s overall theme.

For a hint on how you might do this with your script, examine your theme and then try to find a way to make your secondary characters’ stories reinforce, underscore or act in conflict with that the theme.

The audience may not ever get it on a conscious level, but trust me, they will eat it up. I’m not suggesting that this will be easy or that you won’t have do so some considerable rewriting to accomplish it.

However, if you can do so, the audience will love you for it.

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