Reader Question: How to approach writing a story with multiple main characters?

Exploring three keys to writing multilinear screenplays.

The movie ‘Traffic’ (2000) is an example of a ‘multilinear’ story.

From an anonymous GITS reader:

I was curious about stories which follow multiple characters, each with their own plight to overcome in the overlapping storyline. I suppose my question is more than one… which films are good examples of this and the second being what are tips to remember when assuming this format? What are issues that a writer should be concerned with, i.e. things to avoid when writing multiple main characters? I also assume this is suitable for both Drama and other genres.

A good starting point for your research might be this post [originally posted 10/26/08] re the movie Traffic, which is a great example of the type of movie you’re talking about. An excerpt:

Recently an English film critic Alissa Court used the phrase hyperlink cinema to describe this type of filmmaking:

Hyperlink movies are films following multiple story lines and multiple characters. These story lines and characters intersect obliquely and subtly. Events in one story line affect other story lines or characters, often in ways that the characters are unaware of or do not fully understand. Hyperlink cinema is often characterized by globe-spanning locations, multiple languages, multiple characters, strict parameters in art direction and cinematography, and frequent and drastic use of flashback and flashforward. Mise en scene are used in each story line, to create an abrupt visual break when cutting between characters and story lines.

Think movies like Crash (2004), Babel (2006), and Happy Endings (2005).

My students prefer the moniker multilinear.

Re advice how to approach writing a multilinear script, another excerpt from my OP:

If you have any aspirations to write a multiple-storyline script,Traffic is a great script to analyze. Gaghan excels in this type of storytelling, witness another excellent ‘multilinear’ script Syriana (2005). On the surface, these type of projects may be seem to be really difficult to write, however it’s mostly a matter of working out each subplot’s story arc — beginning, middle, end — then interweaving them, hopefully so that thematic elements in one subplot embellish the theme in another subplot. It’s not terribly different than what numerous 1-hour TV cop / legal / medical dramas do, stretching all the way from “Hill Street Blues” to “ER” to “C.S.I.”, each of which features (typically) three different subplots, cross cutting between each. Interesting to note that Gaghan wrote one episode of “NYPD Blue”, a show created by Stephen Bocho who has created several TV series that use multiple storylines.

The three keys in my view:

  • Be mindful of how, where, when, and why your subplots intersect. As the movie Crash demonstrated, those points of interconnection between disparate characters is one of the distinctive strengths of multi-linear stories. You would be wise to spend a good deal of time brainstorming possibilities in this regard, looking for surprising ways to cross various characters’ paths.
  • The best multilinear movies are those which revolve around one central theme. Why? That theme can pull together the contrasting characters and their respective storylines into a coherent whole. So that’s another area to work on as you prep and write your script.

On a practical level, Stephen Bochco (noted above) came up with a simple system in cracking plots on shows like “N.Y.P.D. Blue”: Color coded 3x5 inch index cards. That is you designate one color for each subplot, work through each of that subplots major beats, then cross-cut between each subplot. I read about Bochco’s approach years ago and to my knowledge, TV writers still approach structuring scripts with multiple storylines in pretty much the same way.

One final piece of advice: While you should watch several multilinear movies and read their scripts as well, you’d be well-advised to do a scene-by-scene breakdown. You can even reverse engineer per the 3x5 inch index card approach, assigning one color per each subplot, then physically tack each scene card up onto the wall to see the story’s structure laid out before your eyes. Great way to grok how multilinear movies work.

GITS readers, any other suggestions on how to handle multilinear stories?

Here is a trailer of another notable multilinear movie Magnolia:

Please note other multilinear movies in comments.

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