One characteristic of a bad movie is that you have no idea why you’re watching certain scenes because you have no idea what the hero wants. At the beginning of every story, the audience absolutely must know what the hero wants. If the hero doesn’t have a goal to give him or her direction, then watching the hero can feel meaningless. The moment we know what a hero is trying to achieve, then we’ll understand the meaning of certain scenes and can root and cheer for the hero to succeed.
In “My Fair Lady,” the beginning of the musical has Eliza Doolittle singing a song about what she wants, which is a room away from the cold and full of heat where she can relax and eat chocolates. Eliza’s desire and goal is clear right from the start.
In “WALL-E,” not only do we see WALL-E looking longingly at the video of a man and a woman holding hands, but we see him practicing holding hands as well. “WALL-E” is a great movie to study to see how to tell a story without relying on dialogue whatsoever.
In “Saving Private Ryan,” we see the goal right from the start. A squad of soldiers needs to find Private Ryan and get him back to safety before he can be killed. A clear goal gives the audience a reason to root and cheer for the hero. When audiences know what the hero wants, then every move by the hero threatens not only the hero, but the audience’s desire for a happy ending.
In “Finding Nemo,” the goal is for the father (Marlin) to rescue his son (Nemo). That’s a simple goal, yet that’s the type of straightforward, clear goal that every movie needs. Once we know that Marlin wants to find his son, then his encounter with the sharks becomes more meaningful since we all know what sharks do to fish and we know that could keep Marlin from saving his son. A clear goal is the first criteria for a good story.
The second is to make the goal perishable in some way. Without this element, then there’s no reason for the hero to hurry to achieve the goal. In “Finding Nemo,” Marlin has to rescue his son before his son becomes a victim of the sadistic girl who kills fish by shaking the bag that holds them.
In “WALL-E,” WALL-E has to help save the future of the human race or else he’ll never get back to Earth again.
In “My Fair Lady,” Eliza has to take speech lessons to uplift herself from the street and run a flower shop. If she fails, she’ll be condemned to a life of poverty. Every goal has a deadline and a consequence. The deadline forces the hero to strive for the goal now, not three years from now. Without a strict deadline, the hero can meander around and stroll towards his goal. With a deadline, the hero has no choice but to make a beeline towards that goal and defeat any obstacles that pop up along the way. Failure to achieve a goal must have some sort of dire, point of no return consequences.
If Marlin doesn’t save Nemo in time, then Nemo might die. If WALL-E doesn’t get the ship back to Earth, then the entire human race will be marooned in space forever. When creating your own screenplay, focus on making a clear goal for the hero, giving it a deadline, and setting up dire consequences if the hero fails to achieve that goal. Those three steps alone will go a long way towards keeping your story interesting and moving towards a definite conclusion.