The classic television show “The Twilight Zone” had specific guidelines to insure the quality of its stories. Surprisingly, these guidelines can still be applicable to screenwriting today.
During the first three seasons of “The Twilight Zone,” the show won numerous awards and accolades for its consistently high quality shows. The producer of the first three seasons, Buck Houghton, had guidelines that every story idea had to meet. If a story didn’t meet these guidelines, it got tossed. This made it easy for the producers to quickly determine if a story idea would work or not before they even bothered wasting their time reading a script.
- Find an interesting character at a moment of crisis in life.
- The character must be ordinary and average, and the problem facing him must be commonplace.
- Allow only one miracle, special talent, or imaginative circumstance. More than one and the audience grows impatient with your calls on their credibility.
Think of all great movies. The hero is always an ordinary person who is facing problems that all of us can relate to and understand. Luke in “Star Wars” wants to get out of a dead-end life, Bruce Willis in “Die Hard” wants to get back with his wife, WALL-E the robot wants to find love, Tom Hanks in “Big” wants to grow up, and Thelma and Louise want to be free.
Now think of a bad movie. Many bad movies start with a hero that you can’t relate to or don’t understand their main problem. In “G-Force,” it takes a long time before we even know what the main guinea pig’s problem is (he wants to be part of a family) and by the time we learn it, we’re already confused or bored.
In another bad movie, “Jacob’s Ladder,” Tim Robbins plays a Vietnam veteran with nightmares, but we never know what his problem is other than strange things are happening around him. As a result, it’s hard to get involved with his character and the movie winds up sucking as well. (In case you never saw or heard of “Jacob’s Ladder,” that’s the reason why. Because it sucked.)
The hero must also be ordinary. Even superheroes like Batman or Spiderman show their human side to get us to empathize with them. Heros who are too perfect are also too unbelievable. Audiences don’t want to see stories about perfect people; they want to see stories about people with the same flaws that they have. That’s why even the ancient Greek myths had gods and goddesses running around experiencing the same human emotions as jealousy and anger like people.
Most importantly, you’re allowed one incredible circumstance, or miracle, per story. In “Big,” this is when the arcade machine turns Tom Hanks from a child into a man. In “Jurassic Park,” this is where the dinosaurs have been created through DNA. In “Die Hard,” this is where terrorists storm the skyscraper.
This is where most bad movies fall apart. The “Star Wars” prequels like “The Phantom Menace” simply shows the Jedi getting in one impossible situation after another, and then magically using the Force in multiple ways to save themselves. One minute the Force lets them survive poisonous gas, the next it lets the Jedi move things with their mind, etc.
As long as the Force is underplayed like in the original “Star Wars,” we can accept the existence of the Force, but once the Force starts saving characters in a deus ex machina format where they miraculously seem to survive major obstacles without breaking a sweat, that’s when all credibility goes out the window and the movie seems less interesting and compelling as a result.
So in your own story, start with an ordinary hero, give him or her a common and believable problem, and give us one miracle (and no more) to propel your story forward. Doing this won’t guarantee a great movie, but it can help you avoid making a real stinker.