It’s easy to create a story. The hard part is making your story last for 90 – 120 minutes. The secret isn’t to stretch a single story out but to mix and match multiple stories.
Many screenwriting books tell you that you need to define your hero’s goal to plot your story. That’s fine, but a movie is more than just the hero’s goal. Consider “E.T.” If you just focus on the hero (Elliot, the little boy who befriends E.T.) then your story is relatively simple and short.
First, Elliot finds E.T. Then he hides E.T. Then he rescues E.T. Finally, he helps E.T. back home.
That’s a pretty clear structure, but if that’s all you focus on, you’ll run out of ideas about page 40 and be stuck for what to do next. At this point, you may be tempted to add in meaningless scenes just to pad your screenplay, but such meaningless scenes also bog down your story and make it far less interesting. Here’s what you need to do instead.
Pick your main characters starting with your hero, villain, and hero’s main supporting character.
In “E.T.” the hero is Elliot, the main supporting character is E.T., and the villain are the adults who are trying to threaten and capture E.T.
Elliot’s story is pretty clear, but by focusing on E.T.’s story as well, you get the following:
First, E.T. has to hide and find shelter. Second, E.T. has to make friends with Elliot if he is to have any chance of surviving. Third, E.T. has to contact his friends. Finally, E.T. has to get back to his saucer.
Combine Elliot’s story with E.T.’s story and can you see how their separate stories work like strands of a rope to build something stronger? By defining and combining multiple stories, you no longer have characters who pop up just to advance the plot or get in the way for no apparent reason at all.
Now look at your story from the villain’s point of view. First, the adults are trying to capture E.T. but they lose him. Second, the adults are threaten to expose E.T. Third, the adults capture E.T. Fourth, the adults lose E.T.
Combine your hero’s story with your supporting character’s story with your villain’s story, and now you have three separate stories that work together to tell a single unified story. Trying to stretch your hero’s story into a full-length movie is impossible. Mixing three separate stories together means when you run out of steam telling one story, you can switch to another story and tell that story until you switch to your third story and tell that one for a while.
The trick is that each story must be interdependent. You can’t have three completely separate stories because nobody will know what they’re watching. This would be like going to a theater and trying to watch a play, a three-ring circus, and a wrestling match at the same time.
The way to make each story interdependent is to have the characters of each story meet and clash. In “Star Wars,” we see Darth Vader and Princess Leia fighting. Then we see Luke all by himself, but then his story gets wrapped up in Princess Leia’s story when he gets R2D2 and C3PO. Later, Luke gets caught up in Darth Vader’s story when Hans Solo flies to the planet that the Death Star destroyed and the Death St0ar captures all of them.
By looking at your story not as a single story, but as three separate intertwined stories, you can make your single story stronger and you avoid the risk of a story that runs out of ideas too soon. Plus your interdependent stories make your single story more interesting as well.
Every good movie tells multiple stories. Every bad movie typically only tells the hero’s story. Which type of movie do you want to create?