There are millions of ways to tell a story. However, the two extremes are focusing on a single story or focusing on multiple stories that combine to create a single story.
In the old days, movies and TV shows focused on a single event, such as a murder. Then the story focused solely on the detective trying to sort out the clues to lead to the murderer.
You can see this kind of single-minded focus on a story in an old movie like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” While dated by today’s standards, the story is still compelling even if the method to tell that story seems to drag and feel dull.
Now consider today’s hour long crime dramas on TV and you’ll notice that they rely on short scenes with multiple storylines that seem to work together to create a coherent whole. For example, look at a movie like “Syriana” or “Crash” where multiple characters are pursuing wildly different goals, yet they’re all connected somehow to form a single theme.
In “Syriana,” the overall theme is the way oil corrupts people everywhere. In “Crash,” the overall theme is racism and the way people react. In both movies, it can be disconcerting to juggle multiple storylines to the point where you don’t feel connected to any of them. However, the advantage is that multiple storylines let you tell a story without trying to drag it out through two long hours.
Today’s movies tend to focus on short scenes that tell short stories. Even if you don’t rely on multiple storylines, most movies still have a single main story but also lesser subplot stories that emphasize the main story.
If you’re writing a screenplay and your story stalls out after 60 pages, you could try to pump up your main story, which can weaken and dull its edge. Or you could create multiple stories or subplots to fill in the time while still telling your main theme in a different storyline.
Watch an old movie and compare it to a newer one and you’ll notice the emphasis on multiple stories in the latest movies. Even the best older movies like “Citizen Kane” or “Casablanca” focused on multiple stories, which makes those older movies still as fresh as today’s latest releases. The difference is simply the variety that multiple stories can provide.
Chances are good you can’t tell a single interesting story for two hours, so try telling several short stories of equal length, or one main story with multiple subplots. Either way will give your screenplay variety while keeping it moving forward at all times.