Everything in a Screenplay Must Focus on Telling Just One Story

Watch any good movie and you’ll notice that every part of the story from the minor characters to the different scenes all work together to tell a unified story. Then watch a mediocre movie and you’ll find that the minor characters and scenes often seem unconnected and unrelated, making the story weaker and far less memorable.

One way to study films is to see what was nominated for an Academy Award each year. This year under the best animated film category, there’s a movie called “Over the Moon,” which is about a young girl who builds a rocket to travel to the moon and meet a moon goddess.

Yet what the movie’s really about is that the young girl’s mother has died and she misses her mother. When her father meets another woman to marry, this young girl refuses to let go of her biological mother and refuses to accept her stepmother. When this girl gets to the moon, the moon goddess is also pining for the love of her lover that she had lost centuries before.

This inability to let go of past relationships to look forward to new opportunities is the heart of the movie. So the beginning and end work well, but the middle makes no sense at all.

At one point, this young girl meets chickens riding motorcycles. Huh? Then this young girl meets a strange greenish creature who was kicked out of the moon goddesses’ court long ago. Huh?

Notice that chickens riding motorcycles and a green creature who was kicked out of the moon goddess’ court has nothing to do with the main theme of clinging to a past relationship and being able to move on? Because of this, the entire middle act of “Over the Moon” weakens the main theme and thus creates a less than satisfactory movie despite the decent animation.

Now look at the far superior “Soul” by Pixar (and ignore their own mediocre movie “Onward”) that won the Oscar for best animated film. In “Soul,” the theme is living every moment of your life to its fullest. As a result, every scene and every character and every conflict is about the hero struggling to achieve his dream of being a jazz musician while ignoring the joys of life around him.

When he dies, he meets a lost soul who refuses to go to Earth because she thinks life is a waste of time. Over the course of the story, the hero watches this lost soul gradually learn about the joys of lie and that helps him gradually learn the joys of life as well. Thus every conflict in “Soul” forces the hero to look at either enjoying life or feeling life has no purpose. That makes “Soul” a far more engaging and emotionally satisfying story.

In comparison, Pixar’s “Onward” is far weaker along the lines of “Over the Moon” where the characters and conflict do not actively support the reinforce the theme at every moment.

When writing your own story, make sure every conflict, scene, and character either supports your theme or actively opposes it. When you do that, every part of your screenplay will create a laser like focus on emphasizing your theme, which will create a more unified story in the end.

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