Monday, August 09, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?

When I started out writing screenplays, I had a weakness for overly complicated plots, because I would ask myself the wrong questions. Is that it? Are there enough twists? Is there enough story? Does it feel big enough? Does it feel like a movie? And so I would pile on twists, escalations, and reversals until it really felt like a movie. After all, only in a movie would all this crazy stuff happen to one person!

At first, my elephantine plots combined with my flabby scene work to create first drafts that were upward of 150 pages. Even a beginner knows he's done something wrong when that happens. (In screenwriting, every page is supposed to equal a minute of screen time, so you don’t want to go over 120 pages.) Soon, I figured out how to make scenes as lean as possible and to strip away enough subplots so my screenplays were squeaking in just under the line at 119 pages.

But I gradually realized that these 119-page wonders were still not working. A lot was happening to my heroes, but they had little time to think about it or react to it. There certainly wasn’t any time to pre-establish what their expectations were before a scene happened, so nothing had any irony when it hit.

I eventually realized my heroes were going on massive external journeys and teensy-weensy internal journeys. My first instinct was to add some “character scenes,” but I was already out of room page-wise. Even if I shaved off another plot twist to give them some rumination downtime, it was too little, too late to create a fully realized character.

Here’s the problem: When I was asking, “Does it feel like a movie?” I thought the key word was movie, but I should have focused on the word feel. If it doesn’t feel like a movie, don’t amplify the movieness of it all; amplify the feeling. This is the difference between complicated and complex. All the complications in the world don’t add complexity, which is what makes a story great.

I suddenly realized my characters spent all their time talking about the plot, explaining it to themselves and explaining it to the audience. This is inevitable when the plot is too complicated. But a good plot should be simple enough that both the characters and the audience understand it just by looking at it.

Once I understood my characters needed to have deeper emotional stakes—and they needed to talk about something other than the plot at least once per scene—I knew my plots needed to be massively downsized. I had been so proud of myself for shrinking my three-hour plots down to two hours, but now they needed to get even leaner: I realized that a good two-hour movie has a one-hour plot.

Die Hard, for all its little twists, is a relatively simple, self-explanatory story: Gunmen have taken over a bank’s headquarters and hold everybody hostage long enough to drill into the vault. The reason this fills two hours is the hero isn’t only figuring out what’s going on, but he’s also dealing with his own personal baggage, since the villains attacked during a massive emotional crisis.

In Die Hard 2, the same hero has no personal baggage, no emotional crisis, and never discusses anything but the plot. The extra room this creates in the script is filled by a far more complicated plot that’s not at all self-explanatory. In the first movie, you can tell what the bad guys want to do just by looking at them. In the second, both sides have to keep explaining every step of the process. Die Hard has a one-hour plot, stretched to two hours by John’s emotional crisis. Die Hard 2 has two hours of pure plot, which leaves us exhausted but not exhilarated.

No matter what type of fiction you’re writing—a novel, a play, a TV episode, etc.—you should always try to have a plot that only fills half your pages, and then let your complex scenes expand to fill the rest with unexpectedly volatile emotional complications.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. Very much so.


NO. There’s not a lot of plot, but not a lot of character either.  Both are sacrificed in favor of tone.

An Education

YES. Very much so. It’s 90% character.

The Babadook


Blazing Saddles

 YES. Pretty much.  The 90-minute movie takes a full 30 minutes to construct its outlandish premise, but it’s time well spent.

Blue Velvet

Yes and no.  There’s lots of plot, but it mostly takes place off screen and remains unexplained so that the movie can focus on character

The Bourne Identity

YES. there are no plot twists in the second half, just character twists.


YES. We all know the steps leading up to a wedding, so there’s almost no time spent on setting up plot, it’s all character.


YES. the plot is very simple.


NO. Not really.  There’s a tremendous amount of plot. 

Donnie Brasco

YES.  In the deleted scenes, needless complications, like Donnie getting audited, are cut out.

Do the Right Thing

YES. Very much so.  There’s almost no plot.

The Farewell

YES. there’s very little plot. 

The Fighter



Not really, there’s a ton of plot, and many of the plot turns are somewhat awkward.

The Fugitive


Get Out


Groundhog Day

YES. Plot and character are inextricable here.

How to Train Your Dragon


In a Lonely Place

YES. the plot all happens offscreen, all we see are the emotional reactions to it.

Iron Man

YES. There’s actually relatively little plot, especially for a super-hero movie.

Lady Bird

YES. Very much so.  

Raising Arizona

NO. Not really.  It’s pretty complicated.  The first ten minutes is all narrated montage.  




YES. It’s not an epic bio-pic of either man.  It’s about the emotional journey the two men go on over the course of a month or so.

The Shining

YES. As opposed to the book, Jack’s internal problems drive the movie, not the external complications.


YES. Very much so.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. We understand the problems and goals quickly.

Star Wars

Yes and no.  There’s a lot of plot, so much so that we need an exposition pre-roll, but compared to the prequels, it’s fairly straightforward.

Sunset Boulevard

YES. There’s very little plot.

1 comment:

Friday said...

This is truly valuable advice -- and the advice I needed right now for current project. Thanks!