Creating a Contained Story

With movie theaters largely empty and the coronavirus pandemic keeping everyone separate and isolated, the movie industry has changed drastically in ways that it may never recover from again.

First, movies used to be major spectacles that demanded multimillion dollar budgets and proven stories based on comic books, popular novels, or video games.

Second, studios used to depend on releasing movies in theaters to get maximum profit before earning a significant return on streaming and DVD rentals.

That’s all changed because COVID-19. Because Hollywood can’t bring large numbers of people together to make a movie, the scope of stories has changed. Rather than require large crowds and lots of exotic locations (think of a typical James Bond movie), studios are looking for stories that can be filmed within a limited number of locations. The fewer locations, the better.

While this may seem like a response to the pandemic, it’s actually good business sense. The lower the budget needed to make a movie, the more likely that movie will be made. That’s why the latest trend these days are contained stories.

The main idea behind a contained story is that it takes place within a limited number of locations, often just one place. Horror movies naturally fit in this contained story idea the best because horror is all about putting victims in a restricted situation that they can’t escape.

When thinking of a contained story, think of a unique location where all or most of the story can take place that requires a minimum amount of people. For example, you wouldn’t want to write a screenplay where the action takes place during a concert because getting people together in a crowded room isn’t possible for now.

So here are the criteria for creating a contained location story. First, think of a unique location. By unique, that could mean a place most people don’t know about like an asylum or a prison, but it could also be an ordinary location under extraordinary circumstances such as a group of people trapped in a building due to terrorists, zombies, or war outside.

Once you pick a unique location, the next step is to create a compelling story. Why are people in this location, what’s keeping them there, and what do they want?

In “Night of the Living Dead,” a group of people are trapped in a house because zombies are outside. So the people are inside because it represents safety, they’re stuck inside because of zombies outside, and they want to survive and ultimately escape from the zombies.

Another contained story is “Don’t Breathe” where a group of teenage burglars are trapped in a house owned by a blind killer. So they’re inside because they broke in to steal from the blind killer, they’re trapped because every time they make a noise, the blind killer will find them, and they want to find the blind killer’s money and escape.

In “Night of the Living Dead,” the contained location is an ordinary house, but the zombies outside make the location extraordinary.

In “Don’t Breathe,” the contained location is also a house but the blind killer hunting the burglars down makes the location extraordinary.

The key is to make the story extraordinary and compelling in some way. The location doesn’t need to be especially interesting, but the circumstances on why the characters are there needs to be interesting.

Knowing this, start coming up with ordinary locations that can involve multiple characters with unique circumstances that are keeping them trapped.

Contained stories are what Hollywood can film today and because they’re inexpensive to make, they’ll be more likely to be produced as well.

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