In the graphic design world, there are three principles that can combine to create an effective graphic image:
Unity means the graphic image focuses on making a single point. In bar charts, that could be showing a trend of sales or profits. In a story, unity means focusing on your theme. In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the basic theme is that one life affects so many other lives. Thus the whole movie revolves around that one idea. Bad movies have no singular theme so you may have interesting scenes, but they don’t support each other or work together. Sometimes they even contradict each other, which destroys the unity of the story.
Variety means avoiding a one-note story. In bad movies, the whole story is about a hero fighting a bad guy, which gets extremely boring after a while. Variety shows different ways for the hero to fight the bad guy, even creating subplots where the hero or bad guy aren’t even involved. For example, in “Legally Blonde,” one subplot involves the hairdresser trying to find love with a handsome UPS deliveryman. This subplot basically supports the main theme of the hero trying to find love.
Hierarchy means telling a story in a specific order for maximum effect. At all times you want to tease your audience and leave them hanging. Think of “Pulp Fiction” where the two hit men are driving together and talking about Burger King and McDonald’s in Europe. The scene seems harmless and then they start talking about their mob boss killing someone who got too friendly with his wife, which creates a cliffhanger because we’re wondering how that information will play out in the rest of the story.
In bad movies, information appears and never gets used or something happens later in the movie that was never introduced earlier. When hierarchy is missing, stories feel lacking somehow either because we don’t have enough information ahead of time or because we have information that’s never used later.
The next time you watch a good movie, look for Unity, Variety, and Hierarchy. When you see a bad movie, notice how it lacks either Unity, Variety, or Hierarchy.