William C. Martell examines how the subplots in The Shape of Water help shape the film's main conflict and theme.
To keep your script focused, you need to choose ONE external conflict. Your subplots will be part of that conflict... like splinter beams from a prism. Each beam illustrates a different aspect of the main conflict or shows a different step in the solution of the main conflict. Dealing with each subplot moves your protagonist closer to the solution of the main plot. Or each character's relationship to your protagonist may be a little story that helps to illustrate the theme of the big story. Each of these stories will usually have a beginning, middle, and end.
In the Secrets of Story: Well Told, I look at Paul Guay and Stephen Mazur's Liar Liar where each of the supporting characters shows a different aspect of the protagonist's conflict (the main plot), creating contrast with the protagonist, which helps to define both characters. I call this the Thematic Method–where everything in the story is connected by a common theme conflict.
Fletcher Cole (Jim Carrey) works as a lawyer, where lies are valued. But every character in Liar Liar, including extras and walk ons, are a reflection of the Fletcher's emotional conflict–from the law firm's Senior partner, who has no respect for the truth, to Fletcher's client, who is willing to lie on the witness stand to win her case, to Fletcher's secretary, who is forced to lie for her boss all of the time, to the partner, who turns down the case because he refuses to lie. Fletcher is a divorced dad who lied about an affair and is representing a woman, who has had numerous affairs, in a divorce case. His client's husband is a good father who is being punished because he is honest. Loved ones are being hurt by lies in almost every subplot. Every character in the film has honesty issues to deal with... they are exploring the main plot through their subplot stories–like splinter beams that combine to form white light.
Each subplot is connected to the main plot. They aren't a succession of small obstacles that confront the protagonist, they are reflections of the central conflict. Subplots grow from the main plot and the theme–they support and enhance the main plot. They add shading to your story. Those scenes with Fletcher Cole and his secretary may seem like they are only there to help define Cole's character, or show another aspect of him... but they are also plot and theme-related! Those subplots are part of the main story–and you can't tell the story without them! Removing them sends the whole story crashing to the ground. Every scene in your script should be required to tell the story... or it serves no purpose. Every scene in your script should contain the DNA necessary to clone the script–the conflict, the theme, the emotional dilemma.
THE SHAPE OF SUBPLOTS
Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor’s Best Picture Oscar Winner The Shape of Water is a charming but dark fairy tale that takes place in the early 1960s during the height of the Cold War. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer) are janitors in a top secret government scientific facility in Maryland where they clean up piss and poop in the men’s rooms, mop floors and polish desks and empty waste baskets. Elisa is beautiful but lonely–she is a mute with heavy scars on her neck. An outsider due to her “disability”... a freak. Zelda is African American in a time before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and is an outsider due to her race. They are close friends, working side by side and covering for each other when one of the bosses or scientists or military guys tries to push them around. In a government research lab, it’s all about rank–all about who has authority over who. And *everyone* outranks these two women.
One day, a new Head Of Security, Strickland (Michael Shannon) takes over–becoming the ultimate authority. He has brought a lab specimen with him–an aquatic man-creature (Doug Jones) who looks like The Creature From The Black Lagoon... only more colorful, and with huge soulful eyes. I’m going to call him Gill-Man even though he has no name in the film... he’s a magical creature. Strickland is strict, bigoted, and sees this specimen as a *thing* to be studied... and that includes being cut apart. He has a cattle prod that he uses on the creature when it doesn’t do what it is told... or when Strickland wants to show it who is boss.
The story has Elisa and Gill-Man developing a friendship, which grows into a romance, and then Strickland decides there’s nothing more they can learn from the living specimen and it’s time to cut it open and look at its organs. Elisa and her friend, Giles, hatch a plan to steal Gill-Man and hide him in her bathtub until the fall rains come and she can set him free in the sea. The film is beautiful and whimsical and funny and emotional, and the sets and locations are a movie version of Baltimore in the 60s that is slightly exaggerated, akin to the way the city was not quite real in The Matrix. It’s an idealized 1962 Baltimore, because this is a fairy tale and not reality.
Elisa lives in an apartment above a luxurious old movie palace, and the sounds from the cinema sometimes drift up through the floorboards. Her next door neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins) is an old, gay man who works as an illustrator for advertisements... when photos are beginning to take over. His character has two subplot threads... maybe three if you count his toupee. Giles frequents a diner that specializes in pies because he has a crush on the handsome young waiter (Morgan Kelly). Giles takes Elisa there for key lime pie, just so he can flirt with the young man, who seems to flirt back. Oh, Giles always wears his toupee when he goes to the diner. Giles has a refrigerator full of uneaten key lime pie slices... he isn't after the pie. Giles other subplot has to do with being fired from his job at an advertising company for an unspoken reason... but we understand that it's because he's gay. Giles has several conversations with an ex-coworker about getting his old job back, and is doing some spec illustrations of a family eating Jello to help land an account. Both of these subplots deal with Giles being gay, and–SPOILER–also deal with Giles being an outsider, unaccepted by society due to his sexuality. A freak! So both of these subplots (and his toupee use) are connected to the main plot through being an outsider.
At the top-secret government lab, the sympathetic scientist, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), is against cutting open the creature, which he believes to have feelings and intelligence. He is a man of science in a military installation, and every time he has a conversation with Strickland, we can see how little science is respected in this Cold War world. Studying a newly-discovered life form is silly, if you can't weaponize it. Strickland is constantly making fun of him, belittling him. To Strickland, intelligence is a sign of weakness. Hoffstetler has two subplot threads–trying to convince Strickland to keep the specimen alive and continue to study it, and–SPOILER–that he's actually a Soviet spy. His Soviet contact is no different than Strickland–they don't respect him as a scientist and see him as an outsider amongst the spies. They speak Russian; he spends most of his time speaking English. They also only care about the creature as something to be weaponized. In both subplots, Dr, Hoffstetler is an outsider... a freak!
Zelda has a subplot with her husband Brewster (Martin Roach), who she frequently complains to Elisa about. When we finally meet him, he is the authority figure in their house, and strong-willed Zelda doesn't have the final word. She is a woman, and this is a man's world. When another man comes into the house, Zelda is the outsider, and the two men discuss issues that concern Zelda's future as if she isn't there.
Oh, I haven't really talked about Gill-Man, who is the ultimate outsider... the ultimate freak. Maybe the last of his species, he is also lonely. Even though he is beautiful, Strickland only sees that he is different... and anything different must be destroyed. That is the central conflict that all of the characters in the story are dealing with–Elisa is beautiful but different, Giles is beautiful but different, Zelda is beautiful but different, and even Hoffstetler is beautiful, in his own scientific way, but also different. By looking at different *types* of beauty in each of these characters and their subplots, even when we follow a supporting character on their subplot thread, it is informing the main story about Elisa and Gill-Man. Strickland wants to destroy anything that is different, no matter how beautiful, and even though Giles and Strickland only share a few seconds of screentime–Strickland is trying to kill him!
Strickland is our antagonist, and some have noted that he’s almost a villain. So he has been given a couple of subplots designed to give him some “character shading”–he may be the ultimate authority at the top-secret installation, but not in the military. His boss, General Hoyt (Nick Searcy), is the bully in charge of the bully–always pushing Strickland for results. Of course, Strickland chooses a brutal path to get results, so the villainy is still his, rather than General Hoyt’s.
The other subplot takes us home with Strickland to meet his wife and family, and one of the great things with this subplot is that it not only shows a different side of the character, it also shows us what a 1962 “perfectly normal” family is supposed to look like. Perfect wife, perfect kids, perfectly manicured front lawn. That adds an element of contrast when we look at Elisa’s home life or Zelda’s home life. Strickland’s suburbia is how society wants all of us to be. There’s a nice subplot thread concerning Strickland buying a perfect new car, but he hates the color. What color is it? Teal–basically the color of the Gill-Man. Because this car is tied to society's acceptable status, he ends up defending the color... but he still doesn’t defend the Gill-Man. Here, the new car’s *color* is a connection to the main plot. Always be thinking of *unity*–what connects the elements of your subplot to the main plot?
ALL FOR ONE
Each of these outsiders are bullied by the authority figures in the story, so their subplots are splinted beams from the main plot. The reason why these folks all come together to help Gill-Man is that they share the same issues in their lives. Different versions of these issues, just as the different beams from the prism are different colors of light–yet all still light. Each subplot thread doesn’t distract from the main plot, it adds to it. When Giles is being ostracized because he is gay in one of his subplots, that shows the audience how the Gill-Man must feel when he is being treated like a "thing" by Strickland.
And Strickland is *brutal* with Gill-Man. At one point, there is so much blood after trying to get the specimen to “conform” that Zelda worries that she will become sick cleaning it up. That’s another aspect of bringing all of the splinter beams of the story together–Zelda and Elisa are tasked with cleaning up the messes after Strickland’s sessions with Gill-Man, which logically brings both women close to the creature. They are connected to the physical conflict. Elisa is the protagonist of this story, so the people around Elisa are connected to the story–but not every single character... only the “freaks.” Only the characters who carry the theme and emotional conflict with them. Elisa probably goes to the supermarket and the shoe store and interacts with people, but none of those characters are part of this story. Giles is.
And there’s a moment where their landlord pops up–the owner of the cinema. Though there is a plot reason for him to be in the scene, part of his conversation is about how the movie showing at the cinema isn’t attracting an audience because it’s unusual... so he gives them a couple of free tickets. So the cinema owner’s conversation is thematic even though his purpose is plot-related. All of these characters are connected to the story! Any character who isn’t connected to the story and theme is left on the “cutting room floor” and never makes it into the screenplay or film.
Once you know the big emotional conflict which your protagonist will be forced to resolve, or the theme of your screenplay, you can create subplots and supporting characters which illustrate different aspects and potential outcomes. That way you will be digging deeper into the story rather than grafting on unrelated subplots from the outside. You don’t want *random* subplots and supporting characters; you want the supporting characters who support the protagonist’s story. Create subplots which are specific to your story and are also involved in the conflicts which are specific to your story.
Your Story Checklist:
1) What is your story’s theme? Protagonist’s emotional conflict? Protagonists’s physical conflict? How are they connected?
2) Are your subplots connected to that main story?
3) Are your supporting characters connected to that main story?
4) Do the supporting characters show different aspects of the central conflict?
5) Is every subplot required to tell the story?
Subplots are all part of the main plot. Not grafted on from the outside. Not random. Connected. It’s all part of the same story. All splinter beams from the story–different colors of light that are part of that main light beam.