Scope, or How Little Should My Story Be?
This blog post was originally published on the old Word Foreword on May 25, 2017.
Stories have a problem nowadays of being too big. This isn’t, inherently, a bad thing - but everyone is obsessed with being much bigger than they need to. Often, stories that are smaller in scope connect with people better and have a much heavier impact.
The biggest modern culprit of being “too big” is Doctor Who. The scope of the show has gone from making an audience care about a time-traveling alien with two hearts to throwing the pacifist into wars where the very foundation of all times and all realities are the stakes. The problem is that since it’s a successful show, and thus a successful product, the producers keep having to face the fact that those stakes need to be played up.
Upping the stakes is a common, and effective, way to keep an audience engaged from episode-to-episode. But there’s a point (all times and all realities, seriously?) where the stakes get too big, and your original stakes get lost. The purpose of the story, and the characters, get lost. Other stories have a plan to control or maintain their scope. Take the Marvel Cinematic Universe for example. Phase One was a great culmination of stakes. All the players had their own personal stories; Captain America and the Red Skull, Iron Man faced an enemy in his father’s company, and In Iron Man 2 dealt with some of the fallout from that and Thor faced his father, his maturity and his brother. Then we get to Avengers where they’re brought together to fight bits and pieces of all three of those things.
But the MCU faltered a bit at the end of Phase Two with Age of Ultron. One of the biggest problems in that movie is that it feels out of place, and the reason why is because it has a scope problem. Ultron isn’t really more dangerous or threatening in the movies. He doesn’t really bring anything more to the table. In fact, many of the standalone Phase Two movies are bigger in scope (Thor: Dark World) than Age of Ultron and even those movies suffer from that because the scope is off-kilter.
So far, Phase Three has wound those problems up. Doctor Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2 are both fairly standalone, so their scope doesn’t necessarily hurt the rest of the MCU (the exception being the comparison of the first Guardians to the second). Even Captain America: Civil War was a downscaled scope, significantly more of a personal story than an Earth-threatening apocalypse - but that works because it integrated the scope of its surroundings. For as personal and small of a story as Civil War is, it makes sense to the characters and to the setting. It doesn’t need to be a huge monstrous threat to be a good story.
The final scope that I’m going to talk about is the unclear scope. For as many scope problems as Doctor Who has, the most important part of scope is the expectation. One of my favorite shows of all time, Lost, suffers from this. Many people had huge expectations about answers, mysteries, time travel, Smoke Monsters, etc. because that’s what the show presented. But the reality is that Lost is a show about people and their relationships. Yes, strange, crazy stuff happens to them - but the story isn’t about the stuff, it’s about the people.
People expected, and wanted, the scope to be massive and life-shattering, Earth-threatening and stuff like that. And, yes, they had that - but that wasn’t the story they were trying to tell.
Scope should be looked at as small, instead of large. How small can you make it while still having a deep impact? If you need a large scope for the story you’re trying to tell, the villain you’re trying to make real, or the characters you’re trying to relate - then do it. But try not to have a big scope for the sake of having a big scope.