Curse Those Romantic Subplots!

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[This Commentary originally appeared in the July 13, 1989 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]

CarosaCommentaryNewLogo_259“So,” asks Liz, “Are you planning to go?”

“No, I don’t think so,” replies Julie. “It’ll just be a weekend of male bonding.”

And so a handful of not fully grown young adult men spent the days drinking beer, losing golf balls and generally reminiscing of bright college years. The talk was bawdy and bold. The laughs were deep and hearty. And all the cooking was done over the open fire of a gas grill.

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The following Commentary may not be suitable for those seeking articles which appeal to both sexes. Unfortunately, try as I might, I can only view this issue from a man’s perspective. Maybe women feel the same way, maybe they don’t. I don’t know – I’m not a woman.

Of course, the very theme of this piece might tempt a woman to read further for the very same reason she might read a chapter from her husband’s current book or favorite magazine. Just as men sometimes read Cosmopolitan to discover insights into what makes a woman tick, so do women read “those silly macho stories.”

Given the way western civilization has evolved, literature and culture has often studied the role of the fraternal bond. Being a potentially dynamic subject, the more successful books and movies tend to feature some pivotal plot concerning the “man vs. man” theme.

We all remember those junior high English classes that explained the various elements of a story. (My favorite part dealt with “exposition” – the necessary background jibberish prior to the start of the actual story.) Aside from all those fancy French words (which I can pronounce but not spell), conflict represents the most critical element of any tale. Our literary titans have decreed the existence of three forms of conflict: man vs. himself; man vs. man; and, man vs. nature. (Here we use the term “man” in its generic sense.)

We can all equally sympathize with the protagonist who confronts either himself or some natural force. After all, every human being has been in both those positions. We all cheer for the hero who weathers the storm or who triumphs over some inner turmoil. With great ease most individuals decide to support the hero – the more human side – of either of these conflicts.

The one-on-one struggle, though, yields the greatest significance. In the best sagas, we see a man vs. man conflict allegorically depicting a classic man vs. himself dilemma. This portrayal torments the reader (or viewer or listener), for we all must acknowledge the cruel reality of the encounter’s ultimate test. In the end, only one man – one side – can win. (Disregard, for the time being, all those “win-win” scenarios they teach you at management seminars. While infinitely more practical, they avoid the very essence of catharsis good literature pointedly cultivates.)

In vanquishing the dark side, the principal character masters some portion of life. We, by proxy, conquer the very same evil. It’s important, then, for a simple-minded person like me, that any frivolous subplots not distract from this noble confrontation.

Subplots do two things. First, they complicate the story. This serves a good and exciting purpose in the case of a paperback mystery. Writers employ red herrings to their optimal potential in such stories. Yet, how many detective novels carry the distinction of the label “great literature?” Very few. Perhaps we can blame this on the diffusion created by subplots.

The second bothersome fact of subplots concerns their irrelevance. Such digressions often water down an otherwise crisp narrative. As a result, the reader loses the feeling of the main plot (i.e., the central conflict). The resolution, then, only leads to naked relief – the story has finally ended. Whatever crises the protagonist overcomes does not move our now emotionally dulled senses.

I cannot claim subplots have universal uselessness. The epic weaves a constant theme through a series of subplots. In the case of the epic, though, the little stories build and amplify the larger story. It takes a virtuoso to guide a story through several different twists yet leave the main character dedicated to his quest.

Usually, though, the subplot will produce a hero who has not honed his focus precisely enough. Without a subplot, the hero (hence, the reader) thinks only of the conflict. The total investment required to attain a finely tuned concentration augments the desire and need for a successful resolution. Using the popular vernacular, we call this the “all or nothing” scenario. Here, any loss or capitulation is total. The enemy has a “no prisoners” strategy. Winning remains the only thing.

The solitary contest between two lone people emphasizes any conflict. As the characters develop, a bond ripens between the two. A vicarious fusion also brings us closer to the characters (usually to one in particular). Any ancillary relationships fade into impertinence. The protagonist and the antagonist must settle their differences in only one way – by confronting each other.

Needless to say, I just saw Batman this past weekend. Such promise. Such promise. A perfectly crafted dismalness provided an exquisite backdrop for the classic story of evil vs. good-on-the-edge-of-evil (as all the promotions pledged). What an opportunity.

But they contrived some blonde to get in the way of a perfectly good fight between two brothers of the soul. I’m sorry sports fans, but I could have lived without the legs for the sake of a more focused plot. The conflict offered some rather interesting questions, all of which the film’s makers left on the cutting room floor just so the audience could take a small peek at Bruce Wayne’s social life.

Not cool. I’ll take Blade Runner any day.

Last Week #16: The Search for the Slice (originally published July 6, 1989)

Next Week #18: The Thrill and Beyond (originally published July 20, 1989)

[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]


  1. Chris Carosa says

    Author’s Comment: This started as a review of the 1989 movie Batman but took a drastic turn almost from the get go. You might remember this movie. It’s the original big screen production starring Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader and Jack Nicholson in his classic rendition of The Joker. Kim Basinger played Bruce Wayne’s love interest. I haven’t liked Kim Basinger ever since she tempted Robert Redford to the Dark Side in The Natural, but that’s another story…

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