Much like telling stories through written words, the art of telling stories through film has a very flexible range. Although the direction of the project in question can shape the complexity, there is a generally accepted scale of intricacy associated with the length of the project. With short videos, we typically tackle clean scripts with straightforward stories. With feature-length films, we can branch off into subplots and enhance our original story into something more spanning. With episodic shows, we can stretch our variety of stories into much longer scenarios. But it is unfortunately becoming a standard to throw as much complexity into the film media as possible.
Complexity is not Quality
This is a basic lesson that even many of the biggest writers and directors in Hollywood can’t seem to grasp. A complex story isn’t necessarily better than a simple story. Complexity is very often mistaken for quality, although the essence of what makes a good story is simpler than that. In every variety of film media, from short videos to branching shows, there is the core story from which everything else occurs. The core story needs to be strong, concise, and well-defined. Without a strong core, anything that branches off will fall apart.
That core is the essence of our film. With a short video we typically have no choice but to stay close to the core. This same attitude should be applied to even our largest projects. The basic story idea must remain central. This should be kept in mind especially in the planning stages, when additional subplots tend to emerge. Adding other layers and other characters only gives the illusion of quality if they are handled poorly.
Limit the Characters
Some projects require more people than others. This depends on the nature of the video in question. But the level of focus that we exert on each person denotes their value as a character. Every character should have a connection to the core storyline, even if their ultimate purpose is to further a side plot. That connection may not be visible at first, but it should definitely be there and become revealed to the audience as the story goes on. This gives the story an extra boost of integrity in a way, as it reflects better on the storyteller’s skill to tie everything back together.
In almost every film or series a pile of coincidental events will lead to the story taking place at all. The problem arises when too many blatant coincidences occur, such as completely random characters all having connections with no other reason than ease of storytelling. This may seem counterproductive to what I just said, and therefore it’s important to find a good balance. Our story should feature character ties that feel organic, which is rather difficult to accomplish. It’s more important to have each character connected to the story line than for each character to be conveniently connected to each other.
Using Side Plots
The most common method to make a movie or series seem more layered is to add in various side plots which typically revolve around characters other than the protagonist. What this accomplishes is two-fold, between making these side characters more human and detracting from the length and quality of the core story. Side plots should be handled the same way as characters. They should be limited, and connected in some way to the core story. Side plots are too often only there to enhance a single character, which wastes too much time on a single person. If we’re really leaning towards using a side plot or two, we need to evaluate what they will accomplish. If the idea takes away from the core story line because it doesn’t add to it in some way, then the side plot should be scrapped. Anything else that it accomplishes, such as making a character or two more human, should be fitted into either the core story or into a more connected side plot.
Sometimes, stories with a lot of characters lack a core story or at least make it very difficult to determine what the core story is. This is a common theme in the series format especially. It’s an easy way to write a longer story, as sticking to a single core story line is incredibly difficult if we cannot stretch the length out without destroying the quality. This interweaving of multiple plots definitely adds a level of complexity to the project, but massively detracts from the idea of a core story line. If that’s what we’re going for, then we need to approach the project a little differently. We need to treat each major plot line as its own separate core, and thus make sure to give each of them proper attention and care. If one of the plots is weaker than the others, this will become incredibly obvious and make the entire project seem worse by association.
Jumping Back and Forth
Audiences have become used to quick changes in entertainment. The way many movies or shows approach this fact is to move back and forth between separate plots, characters, or locations very rapidly. And this decimates the quality of projects dramatically. This does not mean that we should change our filming style by shooting long cuts or some other method of slowing everything down. This does not mean that we cannot rely on multiple aspects in our story lines to play out more complex themes. What I am merely stressing is that we need to focus on each piece of the story as its own segment. Each major plot line and major character needs to have its share of the focus and development. This amount of focus doesn’t need to be split perfectly amongst everything, but if the character or event reflects on the core story line, it needs to have an adequate moment in focus. We should avoid extra complexity, extra characters, and extra side plots, just as we should limit any other form of excess that draws the audience’s attention away from what we originally intended to show them.