Every movie should really tell just one story. If you’re telling a mystery, every subplot should also be a mystery. If you try telling different stories, you’ll wind up with a disjointed screenplay, much like a horror movie with a subplot that’s trying to be funny. You can have comic relief, but you can’t dilute your story or you’ll risk telling a jumbled mess.
There’s an Indian film called “Wazir” that perfectly illustrates how a movie tells a single story. The hero of “Wazir” is a policeman who loses his daughter in a gun battle with terrorists. He feels responsible for his daughter’s death, but his wife blames him too so now he’s separated from his wife. So the basic story is how can the hero make up for the loss of his daughter and get his wife back again?
The hero meets a crippled chess master who has also lost his daughter to a politician who killed his daughter. Yet the chess master can’t prove the politician killed his daughter. So the chess master (the hero’s mentor) has the same problem as the hero. Both have lost daughters and both need to find a way to deal with this loss.
The villain is supposedly the only survivor of a deadly terrorist attack, who survived with his only daughter. Because he survived a terrorist attack with his daughter, he gains world sympathy and becomes a politician.
So we have three similar stories:
- The hero lost a daughter
- The hero’s mentor lost a daughter
- The villain has a daughter
Without revealing the ending, you can already see the similarities of the subplots. That allows the entire movie to stay focused on a single idea.
To study a sloppy, unfocused movie, watch “A Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse.” The hero wants to get a hot girl. One of the hero’s friends is a fat kid who feels useless. A hot girl who works in a strip club is the hero’s mentor and has no goal other than to look sexy. Because all the subplots are different stories, the overall movie isn’t focused on a single theme so the movie feels unsatisfying despite all the action watching people killing zombies.
Every great movie tells multiple unified stories. In “Rocky,” Rocky is trying to prove to the world he’s not a bum. His trainer is trying to prove to the world that he’s not just a trainer of washed up boxers but can be up in the championship world as well. Adrian is a shy woman who wants to prove she’s not just a loser as well.
“Creed” follows this same formula where the hero wants to prove to the world that he’s his own man. Rocky, his mentor, wants to prove to the world that he’s not gone just yet. Creed’s girlfriend is losing her hearing and wants to prove to the world that she has a gift of music that she needs to create before she loses her hearing completely.
Once you identify the main idea of your story, just find ways to repeat that same theme in your various subplots. This will not only make it easy to come up with subplots, but it will also strengthen your overall story as well.