Watch a great movie and you might not be conscious at how all the elements of the story work together. Although every story consists of multiple subplots, all of those subplots are essentially telling the same story in different ways.
In “Legally Blonde,” the hero is looking to find love and learn to become a strong woman. So when the hero meets a hair dresser who becomes her friend, the hero helps the hair dresser find love in a UPS deliveryman and stand up for herself against her ex-boyfriend.
In “WALL-E,” WALL-E is looking for love with Eve, another robot. In the process of trying to find love, WALL-E helps a human couple find love with each other.
WALL-E is also trying to fight against oppression in the form of the villain, who is a computer controlling the starship that holds the entire human race. WALL-E befriends the starship captain who also fights against the oppression of the villain. WALL-E later befriends a bunch of rogue robots who are fighting the oppression of obedience and conformity on the starship.
Now look at mediocre movies and you’ll notice that while the hero may have a goal, that goal is not reflected in any subplots, often because there are none.
In “Alita: Battle Angel,” the hero (Alita) has a vague goal of discovering who she was since she has flashbacks of a former life as a cyborg. Yet her boyfriend does not have any similar type of goal. Instead, her boyfriend simply wants to get out of his criminal life of attacking cyborgs and selling off their body parts.
Even worse, the doctor who rebuilt Alita has no strong goal of his own. He simply wants to keep running his clinic to rebuild and repair cyborgs.
The various villains opposing Alita have no goals either. One cyborg with a pretty face and a sword simply exists for no other purpose than to attack Alita. Another cyborg is under control of the main villain who wants to kill Alita for no apparent reason. Then the main villain has no strong goal other than to kill Alita.
With so many characters having weak or non-existent goals, it’s no surprise that “Alita: Battle Angel” turned out to be such a mediocre movie. The story is flat simply because only Alita (the hero) seems to have a goal and it’s not a compelling or distinct one at that. The rest of the characters have no strong goals of their own. They exist solely to help or oppose Alita.
Great movies have a tightly focused plot that’s echoed and reflected in its numerous subplots. In “Die Hard,” John McClane is afraid of flying. That fear is echoed in Officer Powell’s fear of shooting his gun after having shot and killed a kid by mistake years ago.
In “Titanic,” Rose (the hero) wants to avoid marrying a man she doesn’t love. Not surprisingly, she runs into Jack who shows her how happy life can be when you refuse to follow the expectations of others.
Rose also runs into Molly, a rich woman who’s shunned by the other rich women because Molly doesn’t represent inherited, old money like they do. So Molly is an outcast who lives her own life and that’s what Rose will eventually learn to do as well.
Great stories are unified in the stories they tell. Mediocre stories are not unified. They simply employ a scattershot approach to storytelling, substituting unity and focus with action and more characters who fail to support the main story.
When writing your own screenplay, ask yourself if every character and subplot supports your main story. If not, toss it out. Great stories are unified and anything that fails to unify your story doesn’t belong.