Article by David Freeman
One way to add that mysterious quality of emotional layers or “depth” to a plot is to have the heroe’s emotional journey echoed in a subplot. Alan Ball, the screenwriter of “American Beauty,” does this masterfully.
This can be seen in how Wes Bently’s (the intense young man in the film) emotional journey echoes Kevin Spacey’s (and sometimes, visa versa). First, there are some obvious parallels. Both Bently and Spacey get fired by telling off their bosses. And both Spacey and Bently find ways to be out of communication with those around them. Spacey does so by living in a sexual fantasy; Bently does it by living through his video camera. And both take no responsibility for those around them. Spacey is content to let his family fall apart while he pursues Mena Suvari; Bently sees nothing wrong with the irresponsibility of selling drugs.
But Bently’s emotional growth mirrors Spacey’s in a more important way as well. Kevin Spacey goes on an emotional journey. He starts in apathy, a wage slave. His growth toward freedom and transcendence is mirrored in the character of youthful Wes Bently. With his poetic take on life, Bently seems, at first, to have achieved a kind of transcendence. However, we soon learn it’s mostly a hollow dream. After all, (1) He only videotapes people, avoiding personal contact; (2) He lets his father (Chris Cooper) beat him up, (3) He’s fascinated by death and talks about it all the time, and (4) He sells drugs. Are these the actions of someone who has transcended?
No. Wes Bently, like Kevin Spacey, is in apathy. Kevin Spacey gradually becomes more engaged in life, rising up from apathy to anger, embracing an almost teenage kind of rebellion. He gets a job in a fast food joint, like a teenager, and buys the car of his teenage dreams.
At the end, though, he does achieve true transcendence. Caring about someone else for a change, he turns down the chance to sleep with nubile Mena Suvari. It’s his first step toward a transcendent perspective. And from there, before and after his death, he quickly achieves true wisdom. He even speaks some of the same poetic words spoken earlier in the film by Wes Bently to reinforce the parallel between the two men.
Wes Bently, by trying to be transcendent at the start of the film, had skipped the all-important middle step of anger. So, at the end, he finally achieves anger and stands up to his father, leaving him forever. While he hasn’t yet achieved the real transcendence he can fantasize about, we feel there’s a good chance he’ll make it.
The bottom line here is that the two plotlines roughly mirror each other, and that’s a great technique for adding depth to your script. There are other ways to use subplots to create wonder effects, but that’s the subject for another article.