Watch an old movie like “Citizen Kane” or “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the story structure still feels modern and fresh. Then watch some more recent movies and they feel dated and slow somehow. It’s not always just a case of a more modern story telling with quicker cuts and shorter scenes, but partly because of the way the story is written in the first place.
Alfred Hitchcock movies tend to get highly rated, yet the stories don’t feel as fresh as today’s stories because they often lack subplots. In “Vertigo,” the story focuses solely on the hero where the other characters don’t feel like they have as strong a motive to pursue goals of their own. Yet in “North by Northwest,” the story feels fresh and modern because not only is the hero pursuing a goal, but the villain is pursuing a goal and the hero’s love interest has her own motivation too. With so many subplots going on at the same time, the story feels more active with little drop in audience interest. In comparison, “Vertigo” feels a bit slower and focused solely on the hero with fewer subplots.
Another dated movie is “Network,” which is about a news broadcaster who threatens to commit suicide on live TV, which suddenly boosts his ratings so the network keeps him on the air. “Network” was written by Paddy Chayefsky, who was a noted stage and TV playwright. As a result, his movies such as “Network” and “The Hospital” haven’t aged as well as they’re too talky where the characters talk about their feelings and actions rather than do them. In “The Hospital,” which is about a serial killer picking off doctors by putting them through their own incompetent medical system, consists of entire scenes where two actors stay in a room and talk about what happened the night before. That type of structure doesn’t work in today’s movies.
In stage plays, you have to talk about active events that you can’t recreate on stage, but in movies, you have the freedom to show action and let audiences experience that moment for themselves. In that regard, if you watch many movies adapted from stage plays, you can detect this talkiness where characters stand in one place and rely more on dialogue than action. In today’s movies, you need to rely more on action and less on dialogue because movies are more of a visual event. Think of “Avatar” with its amazing alien landscapes and creatures. Even “Star Wars” had a more visual aspect with its X-wing fighters dogfighting in outer space.
Study “Citizen Kane” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Casablanca” and you’ll see how fresh and modern these stories still feel because they use subplots and rely on lots of action but not necessarily special effects. Then look at today’s movies that seem slow and less active that haven’t aged as well such as “Crocodile Dundee” or “Mr. Mom.” Both of these movies were smash hits in their day, but watching them now, they feel slow with little action and too much talking that seems to lead nowhere.
You want to strive to write screenplays that will stand the test of time, and you can do that by focusing on telling an interesting story that relies on visuals and action than dialogue. Think visually and write screenplays like writing a Zen koan where you use words sparingly in dialogue. Sometimes the less you say in words, the more you can say in pictures.