Every time you get pissed off at a story, it’s because of plot. You’re watching it because the concept drew you in and the character’s unfolding lives has you in a trance. Then something dumb happens. You brush it off. But then it happens again.. and again, until you arrive at the nexus of utter frustration.
Blame this recurring experience on one lazy writer – and whoever edited the script. Screenwriters, brilliant as they are, tend to neglect subplots and misjudge its use in stories. However, subplots deserve as much attention as the main plot.
Hancock, starring Will Smith, is a perfect case study to illustrate what goes wrong when subplots are not explored or there’s not enough back story and things get messy.
Why do you need subplots if your plot is already so damn good?
Audiences need relief. Moments arise when the main plot becomes too overwhelming to process or worse, gets boring. Subplots are your best friend to enriching the story in subtle, digestible ways. When writers half-ass the construction of subplots, it leaks poison into the entire script.
Case Study Example
Even with a small cast, the subplots in Hancock were abandoned. The audience got no closure on the supporting characters or even the villain. Too many questions went unanswered.
Did Hancock really only save the city once? How did Ray really handle finding out his wife is married to his new client?
What would’ve happened if Hancock chose to explore the deeper reasons behind why his wife left him? What happened with Ray’s charity campaign?
Could Hancock have spent more time bonding with Ray’s son? Did Hancock successfully change the ungrateful attitude Los Angeles citizens held for him?
These subplots had the power to liven the story; however, they were glazed over. This particular script lacked closure on characters we were forced to attach to. The movie’s ending only reveals that Hancock went on to fight crime but fails to shed light on everyone else’s story. The preventive cure for this problem? A simple outline!
As an important tool in script development, it allows you to track the development of every storyline introduced into the script so stories don’t get lost and audiences don’t get frustrated.
Are all characters created equally?
As not to cheapen the protagonist’s development, writers inadvertently deny screen time to worthy supporting characters. However, this isn’t wise. Supporting characters are great mirrors and reveal elements of the protagonist’s life that are otherwise hidden. They are useful in teaching your audience more about your protagonist.
Case Study Example
Meet Ray, a great sidekick
Ray offered Hancock a chance at redemption that he wouldn’t have otherwise taken in his alcoholic daze. Yet we don’t see the friendship develop after Hancock leaves jail and saves the city. What happens to Ray’s faith in Hancock when he finds out his wife is also Hancock’s wife? Ray doesn’t even direct any anger towards him! Their relationship evaporates. Yet in the last scene, after Hancock etches Ray’s charity logo on the moon, they still act unfazed by the situation. No confrontation, awkwardness or truce. No emotion from two men sharing the same woman!
Meet Mary, a richly complicated wife
We discover Mary, Hancock’s lost-and-found wife, is the key of knowledge to Hancock’s entire existence. Yet audiences are never introduced to the origins of their love story or why they never chose to pair up and love, as the rest of their clan did. What was so unique or damning about their relationship?
Mary also had the power to expose Hancock’s emotional weaknesses and give narrative to what drove him into alcoholism and solitude, even with his case of amnesia.
Instead, Mary became an agitation to his feelings of abandonment and failed to serve as a useful guide to his lost identity.
Meet Aaron, the spiritual guide
Aaron, Ray’s son, tugged at Hancock’s softer side and protective instincts. Aaron could’ve naturally served as a moral compass or symbol of hope for Hancock. But his appearances were short.
Audiences feel angst when there are gaps in a story’s conclusion. Especially with stories they’ve gotten attached to. They sense the bad writing. Storylines established with the audience deserve and are expected to be carried through to the third act.
How do you write a sharp ending?
Screenwriters fail to complement their protagonist by creating an equally rich backstory for their antagonist or villain. Why? One answer is that character development isn’t natural for all writers, especially conceptualists, nor do we always need our villains for more than third act purposes. But this is a mistake. For a sharp ending, you’ve got to have a clever, multi-layered villain. Otherwise, it’s not a challenge for the protagonist to overcome them. (Listen to a popular podcast discussing the differences between conceptual & intuitive writers here)
The villain resembles the largest force preventing the protagonist’s from doing what needs to be done. Villains should act as the opposing force in the protagonist’s external world and within his emotional development. Otherwise, the villain is boring, audiences get fed up and resent the story’s climax.
Case Study Example
We briefly meet Hancock’s villain twice before he shows up for the third act revenge. He’s an egomaniac criminal who has nothing but a shallow desire to get payback for something he brought on himself. He became very annoying. Even still, it was problematic for a villain to even exist in this movie – Hancock didn’t want or seek to accomplish much. Hancock’s villain would’ve needed more access to Hancock’s life and emotions to cause any real trouble.
Bottom line: He wasn’t a real threat to Hancock. It wasn’t plausible that a small-time criminal believed it possible to hurt an invincible superhuman. Yet we watch the villain arrive with nothing more than a gun as his defense. He was smart enough to break out of jail, but not wise enough to find a realistic way to kill someone as strong as Superman? Yeah.. right. The villain acted on stupidity and thus, the climax fell flat. Bad writing is obvious and this movie was no exception.
The real reason Hancock didn’t work
Hancock had an attitude, an angry wife, powers he didn’t understand, a past he couldn’t remember, and an addiction to alcohol. Yet, he wasn’t forced to understand his reality or overcome his limitations. His developments were subtle as he wasn’t on a mission to solve much. His story started in isolation and it ended there, too.
Hancock was a promising superhero. But due to poor character development, cheesy plot gimmicks, and an unworthy antagonist, Hancock failed to have anyone begging for a sequel.
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