Love. A many-splendored thing.
To add some heart to your script, you decide to create a subplot where two of your secondary characters fall in love. Nothing could be finer, right?
For some reason, I’m seeing a certain misstep lately — in both client spec scripts and in mainstream television shows. Shows that I love! I’m seeing subplots with secondary characters, where all the characters do is… fall in love.
That doesn’t sounds so bad. I don’t get it.
Here’s the deal. If you’re writing a spec script, with one protagonist, that you actually hope to sell, it should have a strong narrative drive. Your main character should be locked into the most important events of her life.
If you cut away from that main throughline to chew up screen time with two secondary characters, it had better be for a reason other than to simply show the two of them falling in love.
I’m not saying that subplots with secondary characters falling in love are a bad thing. Quite the contrary; many great stories have been written with that device. I’m saying that if two secondary characters fall in love, and have their own scenes — the love story needs to either:
- have significant implications for the main story, or
- have significant implications for the main character, or
- be so gripping in nature that it can compete equally with the main story, or
- all of the above.
If not, every time you switch to the secondary characters’ love story, the movie will feel like it’s losing momentum or direction (i.e. failing).
An example of a successful love story subplot, with two secondary characters: 17 Again
In this underrated movie, the Mike O’Donnell character (Zac Efron/Matthew Perry) has a best friend Ned who falls in love with sexy Principal Jane.
- has significant implications for the main story, as it facilitates a big third-act party at Ned’s house while he’s away on a date with Jane.
- has significant implications for the main character, as it causes additional embarrassment/stress for Mike.
- is hilarious, and therefore competes equally well for laughs in this comedy.
- encompasses all of my points.
On the other hand…
An example of an unsuccessful love story subplot, with two secondary characters: True Blood (Season 3)
In general, a glut of subplots turned this 5 star show into a 4 star show this past season. Several of the subplots completely diffused the narrative drive of the main story. One in particular was the love story between Lafayette and that nurse dude.
- had no significant implications for the main story.
- had no significant implications for the main character.
- was boring. Sure, ol’ Lafayette deserved some love, but to waste so much screen time on a bland romance, with a lame-duck conclusion that only tentatively introduced yet another supernatural element, without any real consequence… Really?
- encompassed none of my points.
In your spec, do you have two secondary characters chewing up precious pages with a love story? If so, it had better be good. Follow my advice or readers may quickly fall out of love with your script.
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I definitely see your point; every scene should illuminate (main?) character and/or move the story forward. Or get a laugh, if you’re Judd Apatow – The 40 Year Old Virgin had more than a few scenes that were just for laughs, for which I’m grateful.
What about ensemble pieces like The Big Chill, The Breakfast Club, or Love Actually?
I agree. But for me, secondary characters always come second.
…unless the secondary character looks like Scarlett Johansson – then I would rewrite the whole script, just to get close to her. Damn, this makes for an interesting script!
Scott – Exactly. And yes, my thoughts were geared toward standard arch plots where there’s usually one main character. There are many wonderful ensemble pieces where everyone is effectively a main character. The rules also don’t apply to soap operas where it’s all about the love stories (lust stories?).
Andrew – I know, right? I’m sure there are a bunch of people who will read this article and think, “Why would you even do that?” It’s surprising how many times you see this device used to ill effect in amateur specs. Though, if that Scarlett Johansson script comes across my desk, it’s an immediate “Recommend.” 😉
Thanks for the comments guys!