Watch a mediocre movie and the beginning is often murky and confusing because you don’t know what’s going on or why. That’s because the hero doesn’t have a definite goal of any kind. In “Hercules,” the story starts off with someone telling stories of Hercules’ deeds, but there’s no clear cut goal for Hercules to pursue right away. On the other hand, look at “Die Hard.” The opening is mild for an action thriller, but the goal is clear from the start with the hero coming from New York to meet his wife. We gradually learn all this information as the hero lands in Los Angeles and takes a limousine to the Christmas party where he’s going to meet his wife
While “Die Hard” starts with the hero’s goal, “Star Wars” starts with the villain’s goal. Right away we see the villain pursuing Princess Leia but we don’t know why. However, we know Darth Vader has some specific goal in mind that gradually gets revealed to us over time. Later we learn Luke’s goal as he pursues R2D2 to deliver R2D2 to Princess Leia.
If audiences (and script readers) don’t know what either your hero or villain want right away, they have no interest in following the rest of your story. Once they know what your hero or villain want, the rest of the story is simply overcoming obstacles until the hero gets that initial goal.
In the 1970’s film “Kelly’s Heroes,” Clint Eastwood plays a soldier who discovers that the Nazis have stashed way gold bars in a bank. Now Kelly’s goal is to get the gold. Simple goal, but every action is based on achieving this goal.
Look at a mediocre movie like “Maleficent.” What’s the hero’s initial goal? To fall in love? To unite her land with the human lands? Because the hero’s goal isn’t as clear, the rest of the story is equally murky and less focused.
In “The Lego Movie,” the villain’s goal is to get a super weapon called the Kragle. A wizard fails to keep the villain from getting the Kragle, but even though we don’t know what the Kragle is, that goal drives the rest of the story.
So here’s a basic formula to create the beginning of your own screenplay. First, define whether you want to reveal the hero’s goal or the villain’s goal first. Then make both goals clear but keep the details vague, revealing them gradually over time.
In “Star Wars,” this formula works by first introducing Darth Vader’s goal of getting something from Princess Leia. In “Die Hard,” the hero has a goal to get back with his wife. In “The Lego Movie,” the villain wants control of a super weapon. Right from the start of good movies, you know either the hero’s goal or the villain’s goal.
In mediocre movies, you don’t know either the hero’s goal or the villain’s goal until far beyond the beginning, which weakens the story. You can’t afford a weak beginning. Make it clear that someone is pursuing a goal, but leave the details out. The gradual revelation of the goal details will keep us intrigued until we finally understand everything for the climactic showdown in Act III at the end.