Watch an older movie and if it seems slow, look to see if there are multiple story lines. Many older movies focus solely on the hero with the other characters existing only to fill out the background. As a result, older movies tend to feel slow and drag.
Now watch more current movies and you’ll notice that they tend to move much faster because they use multiple story lines. To see how multiple story lines speed up any movie, just watch a good movie. To make it easier to dissect a movie, watch a kid’s cartoon movie because movies by Pixar, Dreamworks, and Disney tend to be far more sophisticated than many movies using live actors.
One of the best animated films is “Wreck-It Ralph.” The basic story is about a video game villain who’s tired of being a bad guy and dreams of being a hero. That’s the main story, but there are two major subplots and one backstory that keeps “Wreck-It Ralph” moving.
First, the hero (Ralph) escapes his video game and goes into another one, trying to be a hero. In the process, he accidentally releases an evil alien creature that will threaten to spawn and destroy all the arcade games. So the first major subplot is trying to stop these aliens from taking over the arcade world.
Second, the hero runs into a little girl in another video game who’s considered a glitch and unwanted anywhere. She wants to win a race and needs the hero’s help to do it.
So “Wreck-It Ralph” consists of three simultaneous goals:
- Ralph, the hero, wants to be recognized as a good guy for a change
- Ralph accidentally released aliens into another video game and they need to be destroyed
- Ralph meets a little girl in another video game who all the other characters laugh at and who wants to win a race
With the hero and the secondary characters pursuing three goals at the same time, it’s easy to cut back and forth between each story and keep the overall story moving. Now there’s also the mysterious back story that we gradually learn about concerning the villain’s goal. In “Wreck-It Ralph,” the villain is King Candy, the king of the racing game where the little girl is treated as a glitch. Gradually as the three major stories progress, we learn hints of the story’s main mystery.
First we learn that a character named Turbo left his own video game and wrecked the other video games, so we learn the danger awaiting the hero. Second, we learn that King Candy has a secret for why he wants to keep the little girl from winning the race. Finally, we learn that King Candy is really Turbo and has hijacked the other video game so he can stay alive.
So “Wreck-It Ralph” has three stories for us to follow along with the gradual revelation of the back story that explains the villain’s true motive. With three stories progressing forward and the gradual revelation of the villain’s goal, “Wreck-It Ralph” moves quickly and holds our attention while never dragging or letting up its pace for a moment. The end result is a great movie with a unified story and an emotionally satisfying ending.
For your own screenplay, make sure you have more than one story. One is too few. Two is okay, but three seems to be more than enough. Then gradually peel back the mystery of the villain’s goal to maintain suspense as we try to figure out what’s really going on. Only until the end will we finally learn the villain’s true motive and by that time Act III arrives that’s pure action leading to the climactic battle between the hero and the villain.
If you set up Acts I, IIa, and IIb correctly, Act III will be more than just raw action but also include emotional tension and suspense. When you have multiple stories in one, a slow revelation of the villain’s mystery, and an emotionally strong theme (in “Wreck-It Ralph” that theme is all about accepting who you are), you’ll have the crucial pieces to write a great screenplay that hopefully will translate into a great movie.