I shouldn’t be telling anyone what type of story to write. But it’s astounding how many screenplays by first-timers attempt to juggle the journeys of more than one Hero, preferably from a shifting POV. Why? Surely not because of a multitude of multi-protag hits at the box office.
by Karel Segers
Do you also feel the need to tell the story of more than one main character, through the eyes of more than one?
And which movie do you see as an inspiration, an antecedent?
I often ask my students and clients this question. Invariably, among the answers are The Big Chill, Crash and Gosford Park. Now there’s only three films, spread over a long period of time. And the writers each had significant experience before venturing into multi-protagonist drama.
Also, they each had a particular type of experience.
Barbara Benedek, who co-wrote The Big Chill with Lawrence Kasdan, had written for television for 3 years. Robert Altman had a career of 10 years in TV before venturing into feature film. Paul Haggis? Twenty years.
So it should tell you something if 1) the writers of your favorite multi-lead drama came from TV and 2) there aren’t too many true multi-protagonist stories doing well at the box office.
Looking more closely at the multi-protag stories some beginning writers are trying to tell, it seems mostly aren’t true multi-protag stories.
They are instead one of the following:
1. Single Hero – Not enough screentime
The concept revolves around a single Hero but the writer feels the need to hop from one character to the next, to the next. Only one character has a story with a beginning, middle and end, while the others experience a range of events without any sort of climax and resolution. To make this story work, you treat it as a single Hero story and weave each supporting character’s journey tightly into that of the Hero.
American Beauty is a great example of a single-protagonist story with around the lead of Lester Burnham a constellation of fully-fledged characters. The journeys of the supporting characters are written super-tightly and they each cut into Lester’s story. Oh, and by the way: Alan Ball had written television for 5 years before creating American Beauty.
2. Multiple Character – Not enough story
Great multi-protagonist stories are written really tightly, so each character still has a compelling journey with some change. Beginning writers have trouble building stories for their group of characters that are broad and exciting enough for a feature film.
They sometimes end up not only without a real central character but without any real character altogether. We see a lot of ‘people’ on the screen without much of a story. Cut the number of characters and tighten their journeys.
Watch Paul Haggis’ Crash again and you’ll see that each character’s story has a tight three-act structure, with a clear setup of the problem, a suspenseful development of the conflict and a satisfying resolution.
Cut the number of characters and tighten their journeys
3. Dual Protagonist
Two characters run the show. It is very hard to pull off successfully but when it works, it’s great. Most great romantic movies are effectively dual protagonist stories. Some of the Pixar movies are, too: Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, Wall-E.
In the newbie scripts I read with two Heroes, often the leads seem really similar. They experience the same events, make decisions jointly and in the climax they fight together against the Evil Force. This is not really Dual Protag.
Thelma and Louise, The Shawshank Redemption and Rain Man are technically not Dual Protagonist either, as they really only have one character who goes through significant change (Thelma, Red and Charlie do; Louise, Andy and Raymond don’t).
often the leads seem really similar
So don’t get me wrong: One Hero may be the simplest option, the other alternatives can provide for fascinating viewing. All I’m saying is: the reality at the box office shows that it is really hard to do well.
If you don’t have TV experience or you haven’t already been successful with a single hero movie and you’re now writing a multi-protagonist first feature, you are either a brave genius … or delusional.
– Karel Segers
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.