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.