If you’ve listened to me babble on this site for any length of time, you know that the most important component I value in screenwriting is SIMPLICITY. The simpler the setup and the plot, the cleaner and more impactful your movie is going to be. The Terminator. The Martian. Indiana Jones. One character, one goal, one easy to follow story. I’ll never stop trumpeting that simplicity is the essential ingredient to good storytelling. That doesn’t mean you can’t have complexity in your script, but instead of exploring it through the plotting, you explore it in your characters.
However, it’s occurred to me over the last five years that the Hollywood landscape – specifically the big budget landscape – is shifting away from that. The movies are getting bigger, and with them the character count. From this week’s Suicide Squad to Avengers to X-Men to Star Wars to Guardians of the Galaxy to Fast and Furious to Now You See Me to Bridesmaids. A new emphasis has been placed on multiple character through-lines.
Now here’s something you might’ve noticed with the rise of these films. THEY’RE NOT AS GOOD. Sure, you get a good one every once in awhile. But most of the time they get lost in the muck of too many characters trying to do too many damn things. Consider this. If you have a six-character cross-cutting ensemble, that means that each of your characters is going to have around 20-25 minutes to complete their entire character arc.
This is why studio ensembles have 2 and a half to 3 hour running times. They think that if they just extend the running time and give each character more time that way, it’ll be the best of both worlds. But the big bloated running times add a new problem – they slow the fucking pace down. And there’s nothing that pisses an audience off more than a slow movie.
However, there’s no doubt that if you’re a screenwriter who wants to play in the sandbox that is today’s Hollywood, you need to be able to write ensembles. This is becoming a necessary skill. So how do you do it? I’m going to tell you how. Now you may say to yourself, “Well so-and-so comic book movie didn’t do that, Carson,” or “That space opera movie didn’t do that, Car-boy.” Yeah, that’s because 99% of screenwriters don’t know how to write an ensemble. They’re just making up shit as they go along. Here’s how you approach an ensemble and actually end up with something good.
1) Have a main character – When you think of “ensemble,” you think that every character should have an equal amount of screen time and plot contribution. That’s not necessarily true. There should be one character the film is still centered around. Your Starloard, your Luke Skywalker, your Kristin Wiig in Bridesmaids. These movies jump around a lot. You need someone to keep coming back to to center the story. If you have five main characters, one should take up 30% of the movie, while the other four should take up 15% each. The percentages will differ depending on your story, of course, but that’s a good way to look at it.
2) For the love of all that is holy, keep the plot simple! – Here’s where most Hollywood movies screw this up. They think: Big movie, big plot!! No. Look no further than the lumbering Batman vs. Superman or the majority of the Pirates movies to see how this backfires. You’ve already got a bunch of characters we need to keep track of. Why make things even harder on the viewer by adding some big complicated plot? The solution is to do the opposite. Make the plot as simple as you can. Look at the Toy Story movies for this. The goals are very simple: “Rescue someone.” Or “Escape.” Or look at Now You See Me. We’re robbing banks. It’s a very clean setup, which actually allows us to enjoy the characters, since we’re not wasting 70% of your brain energy trying to figure out what the hell is going on.
3) The MacGuffin is your friend – A MacGuffin is the one thing that everybody in your story is after and is basically designed for ensemble movies. You see, one of the problems with ensembles is that it’s easy to forget what each individual character is trying to achieve. An ensemble eradicates that problem since every character is chasing the same thing. This is why the original Star Wars works so well. Everyone is chasing R2-D2, who has the stolen plans to the Death Star. If a simple plot isn’t an option, I strongly suggest you use a MacGuffin.
4) More focus on strong clear objectives – Let’s say you follow a scene with Character A with a 4 minute scene from Character B, a 3 minute scene from Character C, and a 5 minute scene from Character D, before coming back to Character A. 12 minutes and 3 character threads have just elapsed since now and the last time we saw Character A. Can you be sure that the audience will remember what was going on with Character A? No. For this reason, when you’re doing ensembles, it’s essential that each character’s mission or goal or current pursuit is STRONG and it is CLEAR. If it isn’t, we’ll forget what they’re trying to accomplish and be bored the second they come back (“Not this wandering idiot again.”). Remember the Lois Lane bullet search thread in Batman vs. Superman? How unimportant it felt? That’s an example of a weak pursuit. Does anybody know what half the robots are doing in the Transformers movies? That’s an example of an UNCLEAR pursuit. You can’t afford to have either in an ensemble.
5) Keep the writing as clean and as sparse as possible – Finally guys, go back to Screenwriting 101 to get ensembles right. Super clean writing with NO EXCESS fat. You’re asking the audience to keep track of five or six different story threads. That’s a lot to ask. To make that easier on them, get rid of any characters you don’t absolutely need, get rid of any scenes you don’t absolutely need. Cut all of your existing scenes down to only what you need to make them work. With an ensemble, you can’t have anything that distracts. This is why Star Wars still holds up to this day. It doesn’t have a single unnecessary moment.
Okay guys, what I can’t do for you is tell you how to handle a producer who tells you you need to add Captain Zorkaspian to your movie three months before its release because the studio has decided to do a spin-off film with him in 2024 and “Marketing” says it’s best to hype him early. But what I can do is help you write a clean ensemble script. Main character, simple plot or Macguffin, strong and clear character objectives, writing as clean as possible. Now go forth with this knowledge and write the next average super-hero movie!