How To Read A Screenplay (Part 4): Subplots, Relationships and Character Functions

There are multiple layers to any story. The more you dig, the deeper your understanding.

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Cary Grant and friend reading a screenplay.

I can’t remember exactly how this subject came up on the blog, but it did, and when I asked whether people would like to explore how to read and analyze a screenplay, the response was quite positive. So here we are with yet another GITS series on screenwriting.

Let me be clear up front: I am not suggesting you have to read scripts precisely this way. Nor am I saying if you choose to use this overall approach that you do so in the order presented. These are not steps so much as they are analytical tools which you can use any way you see fit.

I begin with this supposition: There are multiple layers to any story. The more you dig, the deeper your understanding. Moreover there is a special kind of learning you can experience only by cracking open a story and exploring its many moving parts, a knowledge that settles into your gut where you start to develop an innate sense of what works and what doesn’t. From the standpoint of being a professional screenwriter, when often you are working against a ticking clock, either to assess a story and come up with a take to pitch, or do a writing assignment, having that internal sense of story is critical to your success as it can help you feel your way through the process.

So at the very least, I would encourage you to try out these approaches I will be detailing in this series to see if and how they fit with your own writing sensibilities. Look at each as a different ‘lens’ through which you can examine a story, providing a unique perspective and insight into the overall narrative.

Note: This series is not in any way, shape or form an attempt to train people how to be a professional script reader. They have their own approach and I am almost positive would not have nearly the time to go through as many steps as I’m suggesting here. Rather this is for writers who want to learn their craft better.

Today, Part 4: Subplots, Relationships and Character Functions

It’s impossible to emphasize enough how important subplots are for… well, I suppose every screenplay. At their most basic level of value, they provide a way for the writer to cut away from the Plotline which is hugely important on many fronts including time management and pace. But their significance is multifaceted.

Here’s how I think of subplots: Relationships. If you want to track down subplots in a screenplay, locate all the primary and even key secondary characters, especially the ones who directly connect with the Protagonist, and you’re almost assuredly looking at a subplot.

Continuing with our study script Up, let’s list the various relationships in the story:

Carl — Ellie
Carl — Russell
Carl — Kevin
Carl — Doug
Carl — Muntz
Carl — Real Estate Developer
Muntz — Kevin
Russell — His Father
Russell — Kevin
Kevin — Her Babies
Doug — Alpha and the Other Dogs

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The Plotline: Carl getting the house up to Paradise Falls. All the above relationships represent subplots that tie into and impact the Plotline. For example:

  • Carl — Ellie: Carl would not have a Want [Conscious Goal] to get the house to Paradise Falls were it not for his promise to Ellie, and of course the love and affection he has for his late wife, as well as the shadow of guilt about never having fulfilled this shared dream.

Note how the subplots in Up create a seamless path from Carl’s home in the city to Carl being chased by Muntz, one group [Carl, Russell, Kevin, Doug] vs. the other [Muntz, Alpha, Other Dogs]. So at one level, that is their character function — to create that narrative path.

But there is much more to the function of characters and their relationships as they help take us from the Plotline into the Themeline and the soul of the story. And that leads us to a fascinating way to view the Plotline and subplots: Look at them through the lens of Character Archetypes.

Here is my take on the character archetypes in Up.

Protagonist — Carl
Nemesis — Muntz, Alpha and the Other Dogs, Real Estate Developer
Attractor — Russell, Ellie
Mentor — Doug
Trickster — Kevin

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For a deeper analysis of these archetypes, you can go here to a previous GITS post.

With regard to reading and analyzing a screenplay, the point is this: Another tool at your disposal is to identify and break down the story’s subplots:

  • Subplots can be intimately connected to the Plotline.

In sum, subplots open doorways into the soul of a story, a presence that is intimately connected with a dynamic Joseph Campbell said lies at the center of The Hero’s Journey: Transformation, or as I prefer, Metamorphosis. That is the subject of tomorrow’s post in this series.

Reminder: This is just one approach to analyzing a screenplay. Everyone is different and has different needs, either personally or per project. If you resonate with any ideas here, feel free to use. If not, feel free to lose.

For Part 1: The First Pass, go here.

For Part 2: The Scene-By-Scene Breakdown, go here.

For Part 3: Plotline Points and Sequences, go here.

Upcoming posts:

Part 5: Metamorphosis
Part 6: Themes
Part 7: Style and Language

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