The surest sign of a poorly written screenplay is when there are too many stories. Pick a mediocre movie like “The Eternals” and you have so many superheroes and they all have different goals. One Eternal looks like a little kid and wishes to be seen as someone bigger. Another Eternal is in love with the strongest Eternal. Still another Eternal keeps ranting about how they’re all going to die.
With so many different types of stories, there’s no focus. The end result is that “The Eternals” is one of the weaker Marvel Universe movies made in the last ten years. The solution to writing a unified story is to stay focused on a single problem or dilemma.
There’s an interesting indie movie called “Drunk Bus,” which is about a young man who has a dead end job driving a bus around a college campus. Since he’s driving around college students, they tend to get rowdy and drunk on the bus.
No matter what obstacles facing the hero, the dilemma remains the same. Will the hero start pursuing what he really wants out of life or will he simply accept what he can get?
In “Drunk Bus,” the hero faces this dilemma in several different ways:
- His girlfriend broke up with him and moved to New York, but he still can’t let go of this relationship and hopes he’ll get back with her one day.
- He’s stuck in a dead end job driving a bus around campus and doesn’t see a way to get a better job.
- He lets other students bully and boss him around.
- He’s so fixated on his old girlfriend that he fails to see opportunities to meet other girls right in front of his face.
- He doesn’t do anything fun or interesting because he doesn’t know there are other opportunities around him.
All of the hero’s problems, whatever form they take, focus on forcing him to either pursue something different and exciting, or just accept what he can get. This dilemma haunts the hero from start to finish until the end, when he finally decides to take a chance and define his own life for a change.
As simple as this may sound, this unified focus on a single dilemma is the foundation of every great story. If you clutter your story with too many goals, none of those goals will be memorable or important. However, if you focus on a single dilemma and constantly show the hero struggling with that dilemma in different situations, then you can create a unified story that hits with a stronger emotional impact in the end.
Pick any great movie and you’ll find the hero constantly struggles with a single dilemma from start to finish. In “Casablanca,” Rick struggles between avoiding trouble or actively trying to help others. In “Rocky,” Rocky struggles between thinking he’s a bum to trying to prove to himself and the world that he’s not a bum. In “Harold and Maude,” Harold struggles with avoiding life or embracing the opportunities of life all around him.
Once you can identify the single emotional dilemma your hero struggles with from start to finish, you’ll have a strong foundation for creating the rest of your story.