Feature Film Screenplays with multiple storylines and an ensemble cast are few and far apart for a reason – they are notoriously difficult to write and execute. This is because their structure defies many of the usual screenwriting “rules”, with their multiple narratives and multiple protagonists, all needing to interlink and have a common purpose.
More often than not writers with ideas that have multiple narratives and/or protagonists are encouraged to craft them into episodic television, where there is more time to tell the several stories and do justice to the assortment of characters. This generally means that most feature films end up with the standard structure of the “hero’s journey”.
Examples of these films that don’t work are hard to find because they seldom make it as far production or distribution. But when they do work they are usually brilliant, and one of the flag bearers in this category that prove all the work required can be worthwhile, is one of my Christmas favourites; Love Actually.
PROVING A POINT
Ensemble stories in feature film, although they are complex and complicated to write, are a powerful tool that allows a screenwriter, not only to send a message to their audience, but allows them to use multiple arguments to present their premise or prove their point, making the end result much more powerful if done effectively. In these films each protagonist provides a different example to prove the same premise. However the potential advantages come with huge challenges, which if they are not overcome, regularly result in disaster and a screenplay that is confusing and makes no sense.
One major challenge is keeping focus and energy in each protagonist’s story. The more there are, the more difficult it is, and this is where writers often drop the ball by trying to give each one equal screen-time. Rather care should be taken to only allow each one as little screen-time as it needs. The best ensemble stories don’t try to weight stories equally, they ensure that each protagonist’s story is structured in a way that only the beats critical to that individual protagonist’s hero’s journey are included.
If we use Love Actually as an example, it has ten different protagonists and stories; The Prime Minister, Sarah, Mark, Karen, John, Colin, Billy, Jamie, Daniel and Sam. (Screenwriter Richard Curtis has revealed that early drafts of the screenplay had more, and that an additional two which were shot, ended up on the cutting room floor.)
A quick tally of the scenes that each character appears in makes for interesting reading, and emphasises that not every story requires the same amount of screen time to do its job;
- 31 – The Prime Minister (Hugh Grant)
- 16 – Sarah (Laura Linney)
- 18 – Mark (Andrew Lincoln)
- 27 – Karen (Emma Thompson)
- 9 – John (Martin Freeman)
- 11 – Colin (Kris Marshall)
- 12 – Billy (Bill Nighy)
- 22 – Jamie (Colin Firth)
- 35 – Daniel (Liam Neeson)
- 27 – Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster)
This brings up the order of these scenes and when to jump from one story to another. Agonising and difficult decisions need to be made, and some are left to the last minute in the editing process, often meaning that the shooting script version is slightly different from the final film.
INTERACTION IS A REQUIREMENT
When weaving the stories into one screenplay, the order in which the scenes appear could easily confuse an audience and make it hard to follow the logic of the combined narrative. In Love Actually, many of the scenes serve more than one story, which highlights another challenge for the screenwriter; spending enough effort to make the stories interact with each other. This is a requirement for an effective and successful ensemble cast film, because it encourages the screenwriter to have characters in one story influence a characters journey in another, thereby raising the complexity, effectiveness and overall quality of the screenplay.
Screenwriter Richard Curtis achieves this seamlessly in Love Actually, by weaving the stories together not only in a way that elevates the premise and heightens the theme, but by making protagonists in one story a supporting character in another, thus achieving the highly desirable shared climax.
For more excellent films that utilise multiple protagonists look at films made by Robert Altman and Woody Allen.
You can download and read the Love Actually screenplay here