How do you construct a storyline that does justice to all the characters in a large ensemble?
An extreme version of that problem confronted the writers of Avengers: Infinity War.
One of the writers, Christopher Markus, described their solution in an interview with SYFYWire:
"It all started to balance out once we realized that Thanos [the villain] is the main character; he's the protagonist of this Movie. He is actually the driving force. He will dictate everything that happens in the movie. Until his story or the ramifications of his story interact with certain characters, they're not in the movie. He is pulling people into the drama."
You may not have that kind of villain in your storyline but a good starting point is to ask what all of your characters have in common. That may be the key to figuring out the best way to introduce the members of the ensemble.
START WITH THE BIG QUESTIONS
It's tempting to jump right into trying to figure out the plot, but co-director Joe Russo describes how they start with the bigger questions:
"We talk about the storytelling, as directors, we talk about what we're interested in saying with the movie, what are the thematics, what's the tone of it, what are some of the bigger targets we'd like to hit."
The theme can become the criterion for whether or not a possible story element fits.
Russo says, "...the thematic question that Infinity War asks is the theme of the Marvel Universe, and can be the theme of any story which involves heroes versus villains: "What is the cost that they're willing to pay? And does the value of doing what's right outweigh the cost?"
ONE SCENE TO AVOID
Markus says, "We had written, at some point, one of those big-ass group scenes. 'Let's get everybody together in a conference room and talk about the threat that's coming.' It was cool because everyone was there, but it was awful."
It's better to let the audience see (or figure out) why and how your group fits together rather than to have an 'explainer' scene full of exposition.
DO JUSTICE TO EACH CHARACTER
Just as is true for us in real life, each character is in their own drama.
Russo describes the process that helps ensure each character's integrity in the larger story:
"It is a very vigilant and disciplined process, of sitting in a room, endlessly, going through the story you want to tell, following the story through each character's point of view. We'll spend a day going through Gamora's story. A day going through Banner's story. A day going through Panther's story. Pulling them through the movie so we understand what their point of view is, what their moments are."
A FINAL SCARY BIT OF ADVICE
A vital question that doesn't apply only to ensemble stories is how you to keep audiences interested throughout the story. Russo offers this scary advice:
"There's a storytelling adage that says, "Write yourself into a corner." Put yourself in a place, on a narrative level, where you have no idea how you're going to get out of it. Breaking Bad is a great example of that adage. Every episode of that show ends in a place where you go, "I have no idea how this is going to continue next week. How these characters are going to move forward from here." And we've always appreciated that as good storytelling. And we love that as storytellers, because that's the great challenge.
Spend everything you have. Push everything as far as you can. Say to yourself, "Welp, that's it. I don't know how possibly there's anything beyond this." And then let it gestate for a while and it's quite possible that you find a road forward after that."