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So the other day I was reading a script and while it wasn’t bad, it was missing something. It took me a good 60 pages to figure out what it was, but when I did, I realized how much better the script could be IF the writer became aware of the problem. So what was missing?
Connective tissue is the way the individual storylines and individual characters in your script link up. This is where you show your mettle as a writer. You want to connect and interweave as many story threads as you can so that everything works together. Connective tissue is the difference between having tortillas, lettuce, cheese, and beef, and having a taco.
To use a simple example, let’s say your story takes place at a barbershop. Like in most movies, you’ll probably have a love story. That gives us two story threads. The stuff that happens at the barbershop and the stuff that happens in the love story.
Well, wouldn’t it better (and easier) if you could connect these two threads together? Why not make the love interest work at the barbershop with our main character? Or make her the daughter of our hero’s boss? Or make her a businesswoman who’s trying to buy the barbershop?
Why would these connections make the script better? Well, when you connect story threads, then something you do in one thread will AFFECT the other thread, sending ripples through the entire story as opposed to just one part of it.
Let’s say, for example, that the love interest is accused of stealing from the register and gets fired from the barbershop. Furious for being accused of something she (supposedly) didn’t do, she expects our Hero to leave with her. But he doesn’t want to leave because it’s a good job and he likes working here. It’s a sticky situation without an easy solution.
Contrast that with an unconnected storyline, where the love interest works at, say, Macy’s. If she gets fired there, it doesn’t affect our hero in nearly as personal of a way. He consoles her and they move on. The connected situation clearly gives you more drama.
The amateur script I mentioned at the beginning was about a kid who plays for his college basketball team. Because he’s broke, he begrudgingly takes a job managing the books for his criminal father, who’s a local drug kingpin.
The script follows these storylines separately. Over in one lane we have Hero leading his team up the standings. And in the other, Hero struggles through an awkward relationship with his father, whose respect he’s never earned. The two storylines don’t cross over at all. There was NO CONNECTIVE TISSUE.
So I suggested to the writer, instead of the father being a drug kingpin, why can’t he be more of a mobster, with his main business being gambling? That way, he can start betting on his son’s games, eventually asking him to shave points to help him cover the spread. All of a sudden, these totally separate storylines become very connected, offering the writer a story with way more dramatic potential.
The most obvious example of connective tissue is probably Back to the Future. Now you have to take a step back (go back in time, one might say) to imagine this story before it was fully-formed.
On one side of the story, you have this kid who gets stuck in the past and must find a way back to the future. That’s a pretty fun idea, but by itself it’s B-movie material. On the other side of the story, you have Marty’s relationship with his quirky parents, who have sort of given up on life.
The smart writer says, “How can I connect these two storylines so they affect one another?” Well, since Marty’s parents met in this town, what if he’s sent back to the year they met? And what if Marty accidentally meets his mom before his dad does, and she falls in love with Marty instead of him? Now the time travel storyline is directly linked to the parents’ storyline. By utilizing connective tissue, this went from a decent movie idea to one of the best ideas in the history of cinema.
We actually see the reverse of this in Cameron Crowe’s upcoming film, Aloha. The consensus for everyone who’s seen the movie is that it’s incomprehensible (including from the studio head herself, as the Sony leaked e-mails revealed). I remember reading that script and thinking the same thing. And the reason was obvious. There was no connective tissue between any of the storylines.
I specifically remember there was a story about needing to sacrifice something into a volcano as well as a story about launching a satellite. You couldn’t get two more unrelated threads. And when things don’t connect, the audience loses interest, which I’m positive is the reason this film is getting hammered.
So how do you find these connections? Well, first of all, you have to be looking for them. Literally, every story thread in your script, you need to say, “How can I connect that thread with that one?” Sometimes they won’t connect. And that’s fine. But often, you’ll find that just by asking the question, new story opportunities will present themselves.
Most of the time, you’ll find your connections in rewrites. In fact, this should be one of your MAIN GOALS DURING YOUR FIRST FEW REWRITES. That first draft is always the thinnest. Only a few things connect. Reading through a finished draft will help you see things from a bird’s eye view, allowing you to better spot puzzle pieces to connect.
I should note that there is such a thing as OVER-CONNECTING. This is when Joe’s girlfriend is also his father’s step-daughter who happens to own the bike shop that Joe’s best friend works at and the bank Joe is planning to rob is being taken over by his father, etc., etc.
The thing is, I rarely see this. And I don’t think you should worry about it. You can always dial the connections back if people complain. I see way more missed connections than I do over-connections.
You actually know when you’ve got a really inter-connected script when making one change affects MANY OTHER THINGS. If you can just pop a character or a scene or a plot thread out of your script and not have to change anything, then you didn’t do a good job connecting your threads.
And that’s pretty much the gist of it. It’s a simple concept to wrap your head around and it’s one of the more powerful tools in screenwriting. A script where all the story threads are linked together is probably a damn good script.