Ensemble writing is a high wire act. And not everyone can do it.
Today I read a stunningly good ensemble script. Why was it so good?
The easy answer: It was balanced.
The more complex answer: It followed the rule that even in an ensemble, there is a lead character.
The biggest problem I usually see is that the writer does not realize when a supporting character has stolen the script from the lead.
And by “steal,” I do not mean “borrow.”
And by “steal,” I do not mean “oops! I stepped on your line.”
I do mean:
1) The supporting character’s story line is much, much more interesting than the lead’s wimpy one;
2) The supporting character’s story arc doesn’t have anything to do with the lead’s arc.
3) The supporting character takes over the scene, and the lead does nothing about it;
4) The supporting character has a defined arc, and the lead does not.
Today’s script was about woman who confronts a group of friends.
It was unusually good because:
a) It laid out the main character and her story early. No stepping on her toes by accident.
b) The supporting characters’ story lines were COMPLEMENTARY. Everything that was revealed about the supporting characters directly affected the main character.
c) Even when the main character was not onscreen, her shadow loomed over whatever was going on.
d) The lead had the biggest arc. And the supporting had smaller arcs.
As I closed the script, I knew I had gotten across the chasm on a thin wire, and didn't fall even once. It doesn't get better than that.
WHAT I’VE LEARNED: There is always a hierarchy in an ensemble piece.
Supporting roles don’t necessarily mean they’re unimportant. The trick is to make each character’s conflict so juicy that even a few lines make a big difference for the whole.