First Draft: Conceptualize Courtship in Your Screenplay By Understanding the Romantic Subplot

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The romantic subplot raises a number of ethical questions when approached in this manner.

First, some may find this pattern to present clear evidence of institutionalized male chauvinism in Hollywood storytelling. With success seemingly dependent upon the protagonist’s ability to “claim” the female lead, the romantic subplot can appear to objectify female characters. Like some magical item to be procured in a mystic quest, the love of a certain woman is merely an object which must first be acquired before accomplishing a greater objective.

However, this accusation may be countered with a claim that, as the character who both grants and rescinds heroic legitimacy, the female lead is the only character with any true power. Indeed, male protagonists of Hollywood films must routinely conform to the will of the female lead, changing their behaviors to gain her full acceptance. In other words, the male character must submit to the female character’s authority.

Additionally, it may be questioned just how “heroic” a male protagonist may be in stories where the lover is stolen from a rival. One might argue that the protagonist is playing the heel by intentionally disrupting an established monogamous relationship.

Michelle Prfiffer as Elvira Hancock and Al Pacino as Tony Montana in Scarface


My background does not allow me to comment upon these issues too deeply. Rather, I will conclude this article by focusing upon the practical aspects of Hollywood romantic subplots, and leave it to more informed individuals to debate what they might express about cultural norms or beliefs.

Speaking purely in terms of narrative structure, the romantic subplots of male-protagonist films are not employed for their own sake. Rather, they serve an important dramatic purpose by acting as a means to continually gauge the protagonist’s increasing or decreasing value as a hero.

To say this more simply, the romantic subplot exists to provide material evidence for the protagonist’s progression along his Character Arc.

Character change is an internal, and thus invisible process. For audiences to observe this change, a film must find ways to externalize it through physical action. Romantic subplots fulfill this need by showing how the interactions between the protagonist and a secondary character change over time, as the secondary character reacts to alterations in the protagonist’s attitudes and behaviors.

Sylvester Stallone as Rocky and Talia Shire as Adrian in Rocky

To return to our ancient archetype, a man can only become or remain king through the willing consent of the princess or queen. By consenting (or choosing not to consent) to marriage, the female party passes judgment upon the male party’s worth.

Likewise, the romantic opinions of the love interest in male-protagonist films act as a barometer to continually gauge the protagonist’s growing or lessening heroic value. The more heroic the protagonist becomes, the more affection he earns from the love interest. If his heroic value declines, these affections fade. (The same of course can be said of relationships with any supporting character: a friend, a family member, or a comrade-in-arms. Yet romantic love can be considered the ultimate, and thus most dramatic, test of personal character.)

This all indicates that the course of the romantic subplot is more closely linked with the protagonist’s Character Arc than the main action of the Story Spine. (This also explains why romantic subplots often appear tangential or even unrelated to the plot’s central conflict.)

Improvements in the protagonist’s internal character are always accompanied by improvements in the romantic relationship. Should the protagonist’s flaws reassert themselves, romantic momentum will reverse.

The conclusion of the romantic arc, that is, the moment the love interest fully accepts the protagonist as a romantic partner, indicates to the audience that the protagonist has progressed to a point where he can now be considered a true hero.

Conversely, films which end in failure use the moment in which the love interest permanently rejects the protagonist to indicate that the protagonist’s character has degraded to a point where he is no longer worthy of salvation.

To conclude, cinematic storytellers should realize that romantic subplots in male-protagonist films are not simply used to “thicken” the story, appeal to a wider audience, or add variety to narrative action.

When best used, romantic subplots support the overarching narrative by illustrating the progression of the protagonist’s Character Arc. Each positive or negative change in the protagonist’s character should be accompanied (and further motivated) by significant developments in the romantic subplot. Change in one element triggers change in the other.

The audience thus comprehends the hero’s internal transformation by observing how this growth affects the thoughts and emotions of a sympathetic supporting character. When the hero finally achieves the love of the princess, he becomes worthy to rise to the status of a king. MM

fbbanner (2)This article originally appeared on the website Creative Screenwriting. Creative Screenwriting is “the best magazine for screenwriters” (The Los Angeles Times), publishing daily interviews and craft articles from the foremost writers in film and TV.

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1 Comment

  1. rona

    July 23, 2017 at 1:06 pm

    this is a badly researched, pseudo-scientific, very unsubstantial piece of superficial writing masked in wannabe academic jargon.

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