Love and survival are such simple goals that it’s easy for anyone, regardless of race, age, sex, culture, or environment, to relate to these problems. You need both in your story to make it compelling.
Every good movie has a clear cut goal for the hero that involves love or survival. In a horror film, the goal is mostly survival. In a romantic comedy, the goal is mostly love. However, if you can combine the two in the same story, you have a much more compelling story.
In “Die Hard,” the obvious goal is survival as Bruce Willis is trying to survive against an army of terrorists. However, the underlying goal is love to get back and save his wife and marriage. The main story is actually a love story where Bruce Willis’s original goal is to get back with his wife. The subplot is survival as Bruce Willis takes on the terrorists.
In “Alien,” the main goal is survival. However, there’s a small bit of love mixed in where Ripley rescues the cat. In “Jaws,” again the emphasis is on survival, but there’s the need for the sheriff to kill the shark to redeem himself because he feels responsible for the shark killing the little boy on the beach earlier.
In romantic comedies, the emphasis is on love, but the survival aspect appears in the fear that the heroes may never find the love they’re searching for and will thus get stuck in a dead end life. In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Jimmy Stewart is battling for his own survival but the love of his family and friends helps him make it and triumph in the end.
The idea is that every good movie combines the twin goals of love and survival in some aspect. A pure survival story is like those old 70’s disaster flicks where a group of people are trying to survive an earthquake, volcano, sinking ocean liner, burning building, etc. Since pure survival isn’t compelling by itself, there has to be love involved with the characters trying to save others that they love. Take away the subplot of love in a disaster or action thriller movie, and you just wind up with meaningless action. That’s why “Die Hard” is far superior to all the “Die Hard” sequels that focused on action and forgot about a love interest.
In “Independence Day,” the main story is surviving the alien attack, but the President needs to prove to himself and the world that he’s not a failure and he also needs to save the people he loves. We like seeing action, but action without emotion (love) behind it is just special effects fireworks that amuse us for a moment but prove forgettable seconds later.
Look in your own story and ask yourself what’s the main story. Is it about love or survival? It better be about one or the other to grab an audience.
Love can manifest itself in sex and romance (every romantic comedy), love for a family member (“Finding Nemo”) or love for others (“Saving Private Ryan”).
Survival can mean life and death (“Alien”), the destruction of someone’s life (“It’s a Wonderful Life”), or just avoiding a perpetual dead end life (“Harold and Maude”).
Whatever the answer, make sure your main story focuses on love or survival. Then make sure your main subplot focuses on the other aspect. So if your main story is about love, make your subplot about survival. If you main story is about survival, make your subplot about love. By giving both love and survival as twin goals for your heroes, you’ll make a stronger story as a result.