What makes a movie good isn’t necessarily what the story is about, but how the story is told. Bad movies tell one story where all the other characters exist solely to advance the plot. Good movies tell multiple stories where every character has a goal of their own.
Look at “Jaws” and you’ll see a movie about a sheriff battling his fear of the water and his desire to redeem himself by fighting a killer shark. Then look at “Jaws 4” and all you’ll see is a bunch of people fighting a shark. The reason why “Jaws 4: falls flat while “Jaws” remains a classic is because “Jaws 4,” like too many sequels, substitutes depth for more action, thereby flattening a story.
When writing your screenplay, make sure your story has depth. Basically, you can create depth in a story by showing the struggle between all your characters, especially the hero and the villain, as they strive for a goal. In a typical screenplay, this is how the hero changes and evolves from one act to another:
Villain fails to achieve goal.
Hero stuck in dead end life but has a dream.
Villain introduces a Symbol of Hope into the hero’s life.
The hero pursues the Symbol of Hope.
Hero is lost and confused. Meets an ally and enters a new world.
Hero learns the mentor’s lesson that represents the theme.
Hero nearly fails to achieve the Symbol of Hope.
Hero learns the rules of a new world and achieves a False Victory.
Villain fights back.
Hero wins minor victory over the villain.
Hero slowly starts losing and getting as far away from his goal as possible.
Villain takes control of the situation and succeeds in reaching his goal, leaving the hero far from his own goal.
Villain in control.
Villain experiences setback due to unexpected interference from hero.
Villain takes control of the situation and succeeds in reaching his goal.
Villain confronts hero.
Hero risks everything to confront the villain and win (or lose).
Too many screenplays stop with the hero changing and striving towards a goal. To give a story depth, you need to highlight the changes and reaching for a goal in all your characters, especially your villain. This gives your story added depth.
Instead of telling a single story about your hero, you must actually tell multiple stories. One story is about your hero changing and evolving, but the second story is about your villain struggling and losing (or winning). Ideally, your hero and villain are two aspects of the same person. The hero represents the good side while the villain represents the bad side.
In “Slumdog Millionaire,” the hero is trying to win a million dollars to attract the attention of a girl. The villain is the hero’s own brother, whose goal is to have a million dollars, but he dies surrounded by his wealth while the hero lives. In this case, the hero shows us the right way to think about money (as a means to an end) while the villain shows us the wrong way to think about money (as a means in itself).
Now each time you give additional characters their own stories that reflect the hero’s story, you reinforce the hero’s story and strengthen your screenplay by adding depth. Take away depth in a screenplay and you wind up with a bad sequel like “Jaws 4” or “Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World.” Keep depth in a movie and you can still have a sequel, but wind up with something nearly as good or even better than the original like “The Godfather II” or “Aliens 2.”
It all boils down to depth and telling multiple, mutually supporting stories in a single script. A screenplay that tells multiple, mutually supportive stories around a single theme will always be more interesting than a flat story that only focuses on a single character. Depth can improve your screenplay, so make sure every character in your story has a goal and you may find your screenplay more marketable as a result.