What makes a great story? William C. Martell shares advice on using theme and through line to create story connections.
What if I told you that everything in a story is connected? In the Story Blue Book we look at the Three Greek Unities—a concept that has been around for only 2,400 years that shows how each part of a story is connected to every other part. There are no stray story threads that do not lead to the conclusion of the story. EVERY piece of your story adds up. In the Supporting Characters Blue Book we look at how every subplot and supporting character serves a purpose in your story and is part of the main conflict. And in the Outlines & The Thematic Blue Book we look at through lines and theme—and how every element in a story is connected by theme and that through line. But is that true for all movies? All stories? Can’t you write some ramshackle indie film that just goes from incident to incident without making any sense?
Let’s look at connections in two recent movies and for fun, our two recent movies are almost polar opposites to show how all of the pieces of a story are connected... and one of the films is an indie drama which *appears* to just mosey along from scene to scene. Our blockbuster is very busy and fast paced, our indie example appears to be practically plotless. Let’s begin with the fun blockbuster sequel superhero movie...
Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) might be the most fun Marvel movie ever made, and builds on the first film in interesting and fun ways. I was originally worried about the original when fellow Raindance Film Fest juror Edgar Wright left the project, but Peyton Reed and writers Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers and Paul Rudd & Andrew Barrer & Gabriel Ferrari made a great stand alone film about a very reluctant superhero and followed up with an even better film that secretly focuses on family.
And that secret focus not only gives the story heart, it gives the story its theme.
The film opens in the past when a younger Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his wife, Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), leave their young daughter, Hope, behind as they go on a mission as Ant-Man and Wasp for SHIELD to stop a Russian nuclear missile which has already been launched and is headed to the USA. In order to disarm the missile, Janet must shrink down to sub atomic... the mission is a success, but Janet is now stranded in the Quantum Realm and feared dead. Pym must return home to tell his daughter that her mother is gone...
Okay, great way to start a superhero movie because it tugs at the heartstrings... and establishes our plot: Pym trying to rescue his wife, Janet, from the Quantum Realm. Everything in the story is connected to that. Oh, and it also introduces how characters are connected: the emotional side of this story will be about fathers and daughters. Though Pym misses his wife, his main motivation seems to be returning his daughter’s mom. Pym doesn’t get along with *anyone,* but is trying to win the love of his daughter.
Present Day: Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has been under house arrest for three years after the events in Captain America: Civil War... and is introduced playing with his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) in a maze he’s built in his house... because his ankle bracelet prohibits him from leaving the house. Father and daughter scene cuts to father and daughter scene—do you think there will be more fathers and daughters in this story? You bet! Scott went into the Quantum Realm in the earlier story and is now having dreams about it—and those dreams include Janet. She’s alive.
The rest of the movie is about rescuing Janet from the Quantum Realm—Pym and his adult daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), are building a FANTASTIC VOYAGE inspired submarine that can go sub-atomic through a TIME TUNNEL inspired shrinking device, to find Janet and bring her back. And all of the complications come from that rescue mission.
They need to find a way to spring Scott, since he has been “in contact” with Janet and is the key to locating her inside the Quantum Realm... which leads to involvement from comic relief antagonist, FBI Agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), who is in charge of making sure that Scott serves his full sentence and doesn’t leave his house. They also need an expensive black market part for their shrinking device... which leads to involvement from serious antagonist Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) who sells black market technology and thinks Hope’s device has military applications that can make him rich... so he plans to steal it.
When Hope goes to buy the part from Sonny, she is attacked by another serious antagonist, The Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who can alter her atoms to materialize and dematerialize at will... who thinks the part can help save her from completely dematerializing. The Ghost is the adopted *daughter* of... Dr. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne) who is Pym’s very ex-partner. All of the characters have connections with emotional conflicts.
We now have three sets of fathers and daughters as well as *families* for these characters who are part of the story. Each character is directly involved in the central story—and even though we have a very busy story will all kinds of subplots—those subplots are all connected to the main plot, as are all of the characters. Every scene is about one of our three protagonist characters (Ant-Man, Wasp, Pym) or one of our three antagonist characters (Jimmy Woo, Sonny, The Ghost) as those characters relate to the central story. Scott has two families who are also part of the story and reinforce the family aspects of the story, which include the fathers and daughter’s: Scott’s ex-wife (Judy Greer) and her husband (Bobby Cannavale), and Scott’s “business family”—the ex-cons he works with at his security company: show stealers Michael Pena and David Dastmalchian and TIP Harris—all three comic relief characters, but every scene they are in impacts the main plot—no scenes that do not impact the rescue mission of Hope’s mother.
Here’s an example: the security company is almost bankrupt and has one big deal that can keep them going, and they need Scott to help with it. That leads to a moment where Pena’s character accidentally gives away Scott’s location. And at the end of the story, some of the equipment the company has purchased for that big job gets used to help rescue Janet by recovering the equipment. But that big deal? There are no scenes with the company they are dealing with. There are no scenes about the big deal. The only scenes are related to the central story of rescuing Janet. Part of the happy ending (spoiler) is that, as a result of capturing the bad guys preventing them from rescuing Janet, the security company’s fame lands them the big deal (and others). But there are no scenes featuring the big deal—the story is about rescuing Janet from the Quantum Realm. Every scene is on that through line.
Three father and daughter characters—coincidence? Nope! Everything is connected.
The Old Man with a Gun (2018) is about as far removed from Ant-Man and the Wasp as you can get, and seems to be a rambling story filled with a bunch of semi-related incidents and characters... but looks can be deceiving. This is the “mostly true” story of career bank robber Forrest Tucker who was famous for being arrested, convicted, sent to prison... and escaping 17 times—often in amusing ways like building a boat in the prison shop—so that he could return to robbing banks.
The movie opens in 1981 Texas with Tucker (82-year-old Robert Redford) entering a bank, charming the young woman behind the counter as he informs her that this is a robbery and she should put all of the money in his old briefcase. He’s such a nice old man that she isn’t scared or nervous. A sweet old guy with an old-fashioned hearing aid, dressed in a nice blue suit and a hat, robbing banks. He breezes out, gets into his car, and drives away...
With the police looking for him after a robbery, he spots an old pick up truck broken down on the side of the road with an attractive older woman looking under the hood... so he pulls over and pretends to be helping her as a police car zips past. He confesses to the older woman, Jewel (Sissy Spacek), that he knows nothing about cars, and offers her a ride home. She’s a window who lives on a huge ranch and rides horses... and they begin a relaxed courtship. Having coffee and pie in a diner, and talking about their lives... though when she asks him what he does for a living he tells her it’s a secret. They are two single older people who aren’t really looking for a relationship, but get along with each other and accidentally develop one.
Tucker also hangs out with a pair of fellow geriatric bank robbers played by Danny Glover in an underwritten role and Tom Waits in another underwritten role but with one awesome scene-stealing scene. The three of them are dubbed the “over the hill gang,” and they pull a bunch of small bank robberies as well as one great set piece armored car robbery in a huge old fashioned bank. That old hearing aid of Tucker’s is really a police scanner—so he knows the instant that silent alarms are set off and can adjust his plan accordingly. The three of these guys are old pros in all possible meanings of the phrase. They are career bank robbers who know of no other way to earn a living.
Chasing them down is Detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck), a married guy with a couple of kids who realizes that this rash of bank robberies are all being committed by the same three old guys. The FBI wants to take over the case, but Hunt continues to work it because it’s kind of in his blood to hunt bank robbers. But there is no hot pursuit, no real chases and no shoot outs—this is a laid back movie about laid back characters. Hunt’s home life gets a fair amount of screen time, which allows his wife (played by Tika Sumpter) to tell her husband, “If you caught him, you wouldn’t get to chase him anymore.”
Which is the key to the whole story.
Because no matter how many times Tucker is caught and thrown in prison, he escapes to continue robbing banks—it’s what he does, it’s who he is. Tucker’s *life* is robbing banks.
And Hunts *life* is chasing bank robbers.
And there’s a great scene where Jewel tells Tucker that her adult children think that she is too old to run the ranch, and want her to sell it... but running the ranch is her life.
Every character in this story is *connected* by their inability to change their nature. They have become accustomed to who they are and don’t really want to do something else. It would sound silly to say that they are *driven* in such a kick-back film, but each character is going to do their own thing until the day that they die. Tucker can’t imagine not robbing banks, anymore than Jewel can imagine not having horses, or Hunt can imagine not chasing bank robbers. And what’s fun about the story is how even *props* like an old radio or even that broken down pick-up truck always manage to get back to doing what they do. Things may be old, but they still work... because that’s what they were built to do. That is their nature. Just as there are all of those fathers and daughters in Ant-Man and the Wasp, there are characters who can’t imagine a life where they aren’t doing that one thing that they are good at in this film. Everything is connected!
And every character is connected to the spine of the story. Hunt’s family story intersects with Tucker’s bank robbery a couple of times in the story—at one point his kids become witness to a bank robbery and at another his family has dinner in the restaurant where Tucker and Jewel go for coffee and pie... leading to a nice riff on that scene from Heat with Pacino and DeNiro... though this one takes place in the men’s room of that little restaurant. There isn’t a single character in this story who is not part of the Tucker Bank Robber story. Jewel’s adult children pop up in conversation, but never as physical characters... and she becomes his alibi in a pivotal scene. Every scene with Hunt and his family is *about* his hunt for Tucker. The Over The Hill Gang ends up helping Tucker rob banks... and creating problems getting away with those crimes, sometimes. There are no extraneous characters or scenes, even though this film seems like they are just making it up as they go along. In every screenplay, *all* of the pieces are part of the main story. Connected.
Once you know the big emotional conflict that your protagonist will be forced to resolve, or the theme of your screenplay, you can create subplots and supporting character and even props and locations which illustrate different aspects and potential outcomes. That way you will be digging DEEPER into the story rather than grafting on unrelated things from the outside. Remember that everything in a screenplay is connected. Everything in a screenplay will be connected to the spine of the story—the THROUGH LINE. Whether your story is about superheroes or elderly bank robbers, every piece of the story is in service of that story. Nothing grafted on from the outside! No scenes with the Detective’s family that are not about his trying to capture the bank robber! Everything must be connected to that main story! Every subplot is connected to the main story. Every supporting character is connected to the main story.
Everything is connected.
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