The simplest story focuses on a single character, such as Luke in “Star Wars.” A more complicated movie focuses on multiple characters, which is also called an ensemble. In an ensemble movie, multiple characters have nearly equal roles.
If you watch an ensemble movie such as “Crash,” you can see how multiple stories can work. Just isolate one of the characters and you’ll notice that their actual story is rather short. In case you haven’t seen “Crash,” there are about five or six different characters, but they all have their own story arc that they’re following.
In one example, there are two cops, one a racist cop who gropes a black woman after stopping her husband’s car. The second is the cop’s partner who is disgusted by his partner’s behavior and wants to drive on his own. Both of these cops go through a story arc that’s nearly opposite of where they began.
The racist cop winds up saving the black woman he groped when she flips her car and gasoline nearly catches it on fire. When he saves this woman, he realizes what he did to her.
The good cop, on the other hand, protects her husband during another traffic stop when some other cops are ready to shoot him. Then this good cop picks up a black man hitchhiking, and gets into an argument with the black hitchhiker. Without giving anything away, this good cop faces his own realization over what he’s done.
By studying an ensemble movie like “Crash,” you can pick out the basic structure of each character’s story. First each character gets hit by some inciting incident that turns their world upside-down. Next, the character’s world seems to fall apart. They take action to make it right, and then they achieve some sort of conclusion as a result.
When you can clearly identify the story arc of each ensemble character, go back and watch a much simpler story like “Star Wars” and you’ll notice that besides Luke, every major and secondary character has their own goals as well. Characters don’t just have goals in an ensemble movie but in every good movie. Goals make each character interesting and worth rooting for. Without goals, characters seem little more than cardboard cut outs that exist solely for the convenience of the screenwriter.
Study other ensemble movies like “The Breakfast Club” and you’ll clearly see how each character has a goal and pursues a story all their own that leads to some type of conclusion. Then watch a really bad movie such as any sequel (“Jaws 3 and 4” come to mind) and you’ll see how characters in bad movies don’t seem to have any goal and exist solely to display action on the screen.
Now look at your own screenplay and ask yourself if all your major and secondary characters have goals and stories that reach a definite conclusion of some sort. If not, then it’s time to make your characters more interesting by giving each one of them a goal, no matter how small because that’s what makes movies more interesting.