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HOW TO PUT MORE STORY IN YOUR STORY

One very common problem in feature length screenplays is that the story does not seem to have enough story to it. That is to say that there just isn't enough going on in the plot, characters, or structure to justify a feature length piece. Unless some work is done on the script.


Ways to turn a not-quite feature into a feature are as follows:


#1 Insert a Subplot

The most obvious fix for this problem is to add a subplot. There are a few kinds of subplots. One sort is in a single protagonist story where the subplot involves the protagonist doing something that isn't directly related to the total plot, but that thematically ties into the plot. In America, the betting game for the ET doll section is unrelated to the total arc of the film, but assists the story in a way that would ruin the film if it was lost. A second kind is also in a single protagonist plot where a secondary character has an experience that generally ties directly into the protagonist's plot. The painter's subplot in Amelie is a good example of this sort. Another kind is in a Duel protagonist story where a tertiary character has a plot that ties the other plots together. Morgan Freeman in Million Dollar Baby is a good example of this. The fourth kind of subplot that comes to mind is the television subplot. This is where there is literally a B plot (and sometimes a C plot) that runs parallel to the A plot, very rarely interacting with it, but enriching it. Study an episode of Six Feet Under. The A and B plot rarely come together in a literal sense, but they always have something to do with each other thematically. All of these plots should either thematically, tonally, or actually interact with the main plot.

#2 Create a Detour


Create a detour somewhere 1/4 or 3/4 of the way through act 2 that deepens character and motivation. These are the scenes that, when your script is too long, are the scenes that end up being cut. In Aaron Sorkin's 168 page draft of An American President, he has an entire section of his script where the president and his girlfriend go to Wisconsin and spend time with his family. This was completely cut to get the movie down to 115 minutes. However, its presence really deepened the backstory if the protagonist and gave the leads a chance to escape the confines of the world they had been in, and gave them a real chance to fall in love. Had the script been 20 pages too short rather than 53 pages too long, this would be a great detour to add.

#3 Make sure your logline is complete

This suggestion is a painful one. However, many new writers make the mistake of writing a whole screenplay based off of half of a logline. Therefore, the plot that they put into 120 pages would better serve them as a first act to a larger piece. Allow me to clarify. Say that your logline is: "A voyeur woman builds a bunker under a bar that she owns so that she can watch the customers through multiple hidden cameras." This is a terrific idea for a first act. However, if you do not add an "and then..." to the logline, you will end up with a script where a woman sits in her bunker watching people in her bar. Which is not a terrible idea for a short film. But a feature film always needs an "and then..." Perhaps she witnesses a crime or believes that she witnessed a crime, and has to figure out what she saw. Then the story becomes an interesting modern twist Rear Window. Or perhaps she thinks she's found the perfect man, and has to figure out how to insinuate herself into his life. That could be a thriller, romantic comedy, or romantic drama, depending on what way the writer goes with it. The possibilities are many, but without choosing one, the screenplay has no plot.


Yes, I am suggesting that if you have 120 pages and realize that there is no "and then..." to your story that you should cut it down to 30-35 pages and start again from there. That sounds really painful. But if you've ever gotten feedback on your script, you know what the good scenes are. And if you have a really great half of an idea, it's worth it.

#4 Is your idea big enough?


Some ideas, no matter how many detours or subplots are added to them are not big enough ideas for features films. And by big enough, I am not referring to high concept. But some ideas will not sustain 120 pages. This does not make them bad ideas. This means that this idea might make a better short film, spec episode of a tv show, or even a short story or novella.


I read a spec script recently that involves a very witty legal issue that challenges the constitutionality of a law in an amusing and creative way. The script was well written and the story was executed the best it could be in a feature format. However, ultimately, the idea would make a better spec script for Boston Public or a show like that. It was a good idea and the characters were well written, but didn't have enough to it to work as an independent feature.


#5 Does your idea have enough set-ups and pay-offs?


It's true that most screenplays have a main conflict with a main solution (or no solution), but screenplays are also filled with small conflicts with small solutions. If there are not enough small conflicts, the story can end up feeling too easy and the screenplay can end up too short. Study the structure of any good romantic comedy to realize how little conflicts can enrich a story. Study the film "Alex and Emma" to see how lack of new small conflicts can make a screenplay feel slow and empty. The screenplay tries to ride on the idea that the characters hate each other, but doesn't add anything else. Don't let your screenplay suffer from being too simple.


The most important thing to remember is that 120 pages is no longer the standard. Most screenplays are now 105 to 119 pages. So if your script is 100+ pages, you don't need the above advice. Also, though most people suggest that dramas should run about 110 to 119 pages and comedies and thrillers should run 95 to 115 pages, your story should run as many pages as it takes for an impartial reader to feel like Goldilocks and say that your script is neither too short, too long, but just right.