Watch “Passengers” and “The Lego Batman Movie” and you’ll notice a stark difference in the storylines. In “Passengers,” there’s only a single story and that involves the hero (the man who wakes up 90 years too early) who wants to find a way to survive. To do that, he decides to wake up a pretty woman he spies in the hibernation chamber. His goal is to avoid loneliness and that’s about the only story in the entire movie.
The woman doesn’t share the same goal of avoiding loneliness and the other human character who pops up doesn’t have a goal either. Since the hero is the only one with a goal, the story revolves solely around him and it’s boring to watch one person pursue a goal all by himself.
On the other hand, look at “The Lego Batman Movie” where the hero (Batman) has a goal of finding a family again. He meets the Joker who wants Batman to admit that they need each other, which is similar to being part of a family. He meets Robin who’s an orphan and is also looking for a family. Then he meets Barbara Gordon and falls in love with her, so he wants to be with her as well.
“The Lego Batman Movie” gives its hero a goal and surrounds him with supporting characters who want a similar type of goal. When all of these multiple goals get satisfied, then the entire movie feels far more emotionally complete than the single story in “Passengers.”
Simple stories create flat, dull movies and those rarely get made. When such flat stories do get made, they turn into disappointments like “Passengers.” The key is to create multi-layered stories where the hero has a goal and everyone around him or her supports that same goal somehow.
In romantic comedies, the hero wants to find love and the person the hero meets also wants to find love, so the two stories support each other. In buddy stories such as “Thelma and Louise,” the two women have similar goals to break free from a man’s world and find their own sense of freedom, which they do. A similar buddy movie, “Midnight Run,” has a bounty hunter capturing a man wanted by the Mob. The hero wants to be honorable while his buddy (the man he’s taking back to court) also wants to be honorable, which is why he stole money from the Mob when he worked as an accountant for them.
The key is to identify the single goal your hero wants and then apply that same goal to multiple characters, including your villain in a warped sense. In “Legally Blonde,” the hero wants to find love. Some of the villains she runs into also want love. First the hero meets the fiancé of her boyfriend. Next she meets a law professor who only wants to sleep with her.
On a more positive side, the hero meets a hairdresser who wants to meet a cute UPS delivery man while one of the hero’s classmates wants to meet girls but is too shy to do so on his own without the hero’s help. All of these other characters share a similar goal to the hero so the entire story feels complete and whole.
What makes a great story isn’t action alone but a sense of emotional completeness, and you can only delivery that by clarifying your hero’s single goal and then repeating that same goal throughout with multiple characters. By having multiple characters share the same goal as the hero, the completion of all these goals creates a unified story.