Story Layers

Here’s the formula for creating a flat, one-dimensional screenplay. Focus on your hero. Here\’s the formula for creating a multi-dimensional screenplay. Create multiple goals for every major character to pursue.

If you watch today’s TV dramas, you’ll notice that they often have multiple storylines. That keeps our interest up because as soon as we tire of one subplot, we can turn our attention to a different subplot. Then the story keeps switching back and forth between multiple subplots until the final story gets told.

Watch a bad movie like “Clash of the Titans” or “Hercules” and you’ll see that the focus is solely on the hero where the villain and secondary characters seem to exist solely to help the hero. That creates a flat story because when you only care about the hero, every other character doesn’t hold any interest so whatever fate happens to them is meaningless, and that includes the villain.

When you watch a good movie, you’ll notice that it always has multiple story lines. Every movie always has a main story and a secondary story defined by the hero and villain. Sometimes the hero defines the main story and sometimes the villain defines the main story.

In “Star Wars,” Darth Vader’s goal to find the rebel base is the main story since that starts the story. In “Die Hard,” John McClane’s goal to get back with his wife defines the main story.

If we focused only on Darth Vader or John McClane, the movie would be boring. That’s why you always need a secondary story where the secondary story keeps causing problems for the main story (and vice versa).

In “Star Wars,” the main story is about Darth Vader’s goal of finding the rebel base. The secondary story is Luke’s desire to have an adventure. A third story is Obi-wan’s quest to resolve his conflict with Darth Vader. A fourth story is Princess Leia trying to get the stolen Death Star plans to the rebels. A fifth story is Hans Solo trying to get enough money to pay back Jabba the Hutt. With so many stories going on, it’s easy for each character to feel lifelike and fully fleshed out. (Watch “Clash of the Titans” or “Hercules” to see how few characters have any goals beyond hanging around the hero.)

In “Die Hard,” the main story is for John McClane to get back with his wife. The secondary story is for Hans to successfully rob the corporate safe. A third story is for the black police officer to overcome his fear of shooting his gun again. A fourth story is John McClane’s wife trying to hide her identity from Hans the terrorist. A fifth story is one of the terrorists trying to avenge the death of his brother by killing John McClane. A sixth story is the news crew trying to uncover information about the terrorist takeover, which puts John McClane’s family in jeopardy.

The more stories you have that work within the main and secondary stories, the stronger your overall story will be. Thin of each subplot like a strand of rope. By itself it may not be strong but twist them together and combined they make a much stronger rope.

So think of how every character in your story needs to have a goal to pursue. As long as each goal is somehow related to the overall story, each subplot will strengthen and support the other stories and feel like a unified whole.

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