The quickest way to dilute a story is to fill it with too many characters and subplots that don’t support each other. This is why less can be more when telling a story. Think of your favorite TV series. After a few years, it tends to peak and then start getting ridiculous, a term known as “Jumping the Shark.” There are two reasons why TV shows tend to get stale and dull.
First, the stories start getting too outlandish. Hence the term “Jumping the Shark.” Stories get outlandish when there’s no sense of danger to the heroes and they become invincible. Think of the heroes in “The Phantom Menace” where the two Jedi get locked in a room filled with poison gas. How do they survive? They use the Force!
As the movie progresses, every obstacle that comes their way can be easily overcome by the Force. Now there’s no sense of danger or suspense because no matter what happens, we know that they’ll just save themselves by using the Force. In Greek plays, this type of saving the heroes from out of the blue solutions was called “deus ex machina,” which meant that the gods would appear and save the heroes.
Boring, right? You can’t make your heroes invincible. In “Die Hard,” Bruce Willis is a tough cop but he’s also vulnerable because he’s running around in his bare feet. In all those bad “Star Was” prequels, there’s no sense of danger because the Force will save them every time.
Even in comedies like “GhostBusters,” there’s still a sense of danger. We know our heroes aren’t going to be killed in a comedy, but there’s still a sense of danger to the heroes from an all-powerful villain that can knock the GhostBusters off the roof of a building until they’re clinging to the edge for dear life.
Besides making stories so outlandish that they’re no longer realistic with a sense of suspense and danger, stories often dilute their focus by introducing too many characters and subplots that have nothing to do with each other. The more characters, the less focus on any of them and the less focus on any character, the less likely you’ll draw in your audience to care about anyone.
In “Up,” the focus is clearly on the old man as the hero. In “Toy Story 3,” you have multiple characters, but Woody is always the main focus. Even when Woody isn’t in a scene, he still helped spur the action in that scene.
In “Toy Story 3,” Woody finds himself in a home where a girl treats her toys well. This is where Woody learns more about Lotsa Bear, the villain, and he’s motivated to return and rescue his friends. In the meantime, his friends are plotting to get out, so even though Woody isn’t with them, his story is still directly involved with their story of escaping from the day care center.
So trim back your characters or make sure you always keep the focus on your main character. If your main character isn’t around, your secondary characters should be pursuing a goal that’s similar to your hero’s goal to keep everything focused. You don’t want your hero pursuing a goal of rescuing his friends while the secondary characters pursue a goal of learning to play chess or something dissimilar like that.
Strip away your characters until only your hero remains the focus. Then make sure your hero is vulnerable so we sense a real fear that he could actually lose. That provides suspense and audience interest, and that’s what you need to create a compelling story.