Friday, April 9, 2010

Ensemble and "intersecting lives" pieces

Jeremiah writes: I'm 17 and working on a drama/thriller feature that is an ensemble piece. I'm trying to make it a tricky project like LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN meets CRASH, but I'm having trouble with the structure. Any ideas?

CRASH is not just an ensemble piece,  it's what I call an "intersecting lives" piece, because the characters are all dealing with their own stories and conflicts that intersect and weave together throughout the movie. LOVE ACTUALLY is another successful example of this, though in that film there are already a lot of established familial and friend relationships, which might have made the storytelling a bit easier and more natural. An example of a straight-up ensemble piece in which the characters are all dealing with the same plot/conflict would be THE BIG CHILL. Often, ensemble pieces are about families, students or groups of friends - because these people are already in the same settings and dealing with the same problem(s). When we throw together a lot of unrelated people who only meet because of the movie, things get trickier.

In my opinion, ensemble pieces are hard and intersecting lives pieces are even harder. I've read a lot of ones that don't work, usually because I don't care about the characters enough, or because the plots are muddled or confusing (or worse, nonexistent). It's a lot of work to develop several characters equally, and movies can feel disjointed if it's not one single person who is driving the story. For writers attempting their first (or second, or third) feature, I would recommend sticking with a more typical structure with one protagonist going on a single journey to achieve a single goal. (Even in TV shows with lots of characters, it's usually a good idea to zero in on a protagonist. Look at the LOST pilot - we immediately see things from Jack's point of view.) It's not that you can't have well-defined secondary characters, conflicts and subplots, but focusing on your protagonist will keep your story clear and organized. I think once you master this structure, then you'll be more equipped to tackle a more complicated ensemble piece or intersecting lives piece.

But if you insist on writing an ensemble or intersecting lives piece, I would recommend studying the structure of every successful one you can find. What works? What doesn't? How do you get to know the characters quickly? How does the plot keep moving along? In a general sense, I would stick to the standard three-act structure laid out in books like SAVE THE CAT (my must-have guide for outlining features).

I think you'll also notice that these pieces have really strong themes, and that each plot is an exploration of the theme, whether it's love being all around us or racism and prejudice being all around us. (HE'S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU is another ensemble piece with a really specific theme.) Maybe the key is to start with what you want to say.

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The Bitter Script Reader said...

I pretty much agree with you, Amanda. These things are HARD to get right - take it from someone who's read a lot of them done wrong. This is not the sort of project to attempt as your first or even your second spec.

I just read a spec that seemed to throw a dozen main characters at the audience in the first ten pages. That was overwhelming enough when they all seemed to share the same narrative - it's really hard to hook an audience when you do that AND are setting up multiple locations, supporting characters and threads at the same time.

Amanda's right - it helps IMMENSELY to have a single protagonist point of view. The audience has someone to latch onto and we can follow everything through their eyes. A script like CRASH or LOVE ACTUALLY asks a lot more of its reader, and thus, the writer must really be on their game in order to make it work.

samuel.x.killer said...

this book might be helpful - there are some interesting discussions of non-traditional structure. i do agree with amanda though - not a good idea for a first second or third script

Amanda said...

thanks BSR! I was hoping you would weigh in. I feel like we've all read 30 of these that don't work, and 1 that does.

The Bitter Script Reader said...

Glad I could help, Amanda. You hit the nail on the head so well that I almost didn't reply because I had little to add.

I've written or co-written about 8 specs and I still am not sure I have enough experience to tackle that sort of structure and do it right. It's a tough style to master.

Josh K-sky said...

Not exactly on point, but related: My writing partner and I really enjoyed writing a Friday Night Lights spec. As an ensemble piece it's really straightforward -- up to six characters have their own plot, and while they appear in each others' stories, there aren't the kind of critical intersections that intertwine the A-story, B-story, etc. Having so many characters requires very economical storytelling for each one.

You might try writing something in which the theme carries over from story to story, but that doesn't depend as much on baroquely plotted intersections. But this may not carry over perfectly to feature writing.

Dan Williams said...

Just an add-in: in "Merchant of Venice", Shakespeare has 5 acts. In Act 1, he keeps it simple: A needs money, he goes to B, and he and B get money from C. Curtain.

But in Act 2, this is where the number of characters and story lines multiply. So the lesson is, I guess, not to throw characters at the reader/audience in Act 1, but it can work in Act 2.

Rene said...

Dan. WTF?

Dan Williams said...

Rene, in "Merchant of Venice", there is a 5-Act structure. In Act 1, there is one basic story line: character A, say, borrows money. This is akin to Tarentino's, "Inglorius Basterds", which also has a 5-Act structure.

Then, in Act 2, Shakespeare introduces other storylines, and Tarentino does also. So I'm guessing that once a plot is set-up in Act 1 with the basic storyline, that Act 2, of a 5-Act structure, is the place for two, three or four new storylines to be introduced. This way, it gets over the problem of introducing too many characters in Act 1, characters we don't care enough about because we spend too little time with them.

Have you read Tarentino's script?

Sasha said...

Re: the Friday Night Lights spec.

As someone who loves (loves!) TV, obviously I'm a huge fan of those intricately plotted, heightened reality, multiple POV, cult-type TV shows. So of course, those are the shows I'm most interested in writing, and the ones that I always end up trying to spec. And every time, it's a BIG mistake. Even now, quite a few scripts down the line, I'm finding it super difficult to handle. Which makes sense--I mean, in writing a spec for one of those shows, there are all the usual challenges of trying to hit a conventional A-plot/B-story, 1-2 lead show, plus:

--Finding 5 different interesting plots that all rely on the same Act 4 set piece? DIFFICULT.

--Making sure all those storylines are true to the 5-8 leads, and the episode's theme? Making sure all those characters grow/change (but remain fundamentally the same!) at the end of 60 pages? And the audience maybe has, too? DIFFICULT.

--Freshening up even recent scripts when one character out of those 8 "regulars" has changed his/her journey significantly or gotten written out? (Which is ALL THE FREAKING TIME) DIFFICULT.

It sucks that my TV viewing is so much more sophisticated than my TV writing! But what can I say? I'm going to keep banging my head against the wall, because those are the shows I love, yanno?