In the beginning of every story, there’s an initial question defined by the hero’s emotional dream. By the end of the story, this initial question must finally be answered.
In “Die Hard,” this initial question is whether John McClane will get back with his wife or not. By the end of the story, John McClane finally does get back with his wife.
In “La La Land,” the initial question is whether Mia, an aspiring actress, will ever succeed in Hollywood. By the end of the story, she finally does.
In the horror film “Don’t Breathe,” the initial question is whether Rocky, a young girl, will escape her abusive mother and her alcoholic boyfriend to save her little sister by moving to California. By the end of the story, she finally takes her little sister and is on her way to California.
Every story must pose an initial question and then answer it. When you pose an initial question and fail to answer it, you create a disjointed and unsatisfying movie. In “Downsizing,” the initial question posed is whether the hero, Paul, will ever find financial security. By the end of the story, he falls in love.
Notice the disjointed nature of the initial question posed and the final ending? This is what makes “Downsizing” seem like two completely different stories.
Study any good movie and you’ll find that it poses an initial question and then answers it in the end. In “Casablanca,” the initial question is whether Rick will ever care about anyone other than himself again. By the end of the story, he finally does care about others instead of himself.
Often times the initial question has nothing to do with the main story. In “Die Hard,” the initial question is simply whether John McClane will get back with his wife. Then suddenly terrorists appear and get in the way. Yet John McClane could easily have gotten back with his wife without the terrorists. The only reason the terrorists really exist is to force John McClane to realize how much he really does love his wife (at the thought of losing her forever) and how it’s really his fault for their break up (he realizes he’s stubborn and arrogant).
When planning your own story, focus on the initial question and make sure it gets answered in the end. Then identify how the hero could have achieved this initial question by changing their actions and thoughts. Don’t even think about the villain’s goal at this point because the villain’s actions are totally irrelevant.
The initial question poses a goal. The ending answers it. How the hero achieves this initial goal is the change they need internally.
Once you know the internal change your hero needs, then you can focus on making this internal change visible externally. For example, in “Die Hard,” John McClane could easily get back with his wife again, but he’s stubborn and arrogant. That’s the purpose of the villain, to personality the hero’s own flaws because in “Die Hard,” the villain is also arrogant. When you can identify the internal change in your hero, you can easily identify the greatest external obstacle (villain) your hero must face, and that will go a long way towards creating a compelling story that more special effects and explosions can never do.