Rotten Tomatoes usually rates movies pretty well. However, if you look at their ratings for “Miss Congeniality” and “Mall Cop,” you’ll see extremely low scores, yet both movies were hits. What critics missed about both movies is that they had a solid story structure in place. In both movies, the hero is a loser. The hero in “Miss Congeniality” is a tomboy who needs to embrace her femininity while the hero in “Mall Cop” wants to find love. What makes both movies appealing is that they have a strong emotional core.
All great stories start with an emotional core. That means the hero is flawed and searching for a way to make his or her life better. “Miss Congeniality” is superficially about an FBI agent going undercover and trying to find a terrorist, but it’s really about the hero learning to become a woman. “Mall Cop” isn’t really about a mall cop defeating terrorists who take over a mall, but it’s about a lonely man looking to redeem himself in front of his daughter and potential girlfriend.
When you strip away this emotional story, you wind up with a bad movie as “Miss Congeniality 2” shows. “Mall Cop 2” is coming out next year and if they omit the emotional core, all the silly gags won’t make the movie any better. In “Mall Cop,” the silly gags work because they support the emotional story, which is about the hero overcoming his loser status to redeem himself. Take away the emotional story of any movie and you wind up with a lot of empty action that means nothing and becomes completely forgettable, like “Terminator 3.”
Most novices try to create a lot of interesting action, but that’s like worrying about the frosting before you even have a cake to put it on. Creating an interesting plot or high-concept idea is meaningless without an emotional core. It’s easy to come up with a high-concept idea. It’s hard to turn that idea into a great story if you don’t have an emotional core to go with it. Look at failures like “Sex Tape,” “The Other Woman,” and “Tammy” to see what happens when you have all action and no emotional core behind it. When each scene is just trying to be funny or entertaining, it probably won’t be coherent with the rest of the story so it won’t be funny. When each scene supports the emotional core of a story in a funny or entertaining manner, then each scene supports the same idea and creates a strong story.
You need a high-concept idea to grab a studio’s attention, but you also need a strong emotional core to make that high-concept idea work. In “Die Hard,” the emotional core is about the hero wanting to get back with his wife. The high-concept idea is one man against an army of terrorists. Take away this emotional core and you get all the lame “Die Hard” sequels and wannabe clone movies that are simply awful because all they focus on is the high-concept idea.
To create a great story, first come up with a great high-concept idea. Then before doing anything else, look for an emotional core to support that idea. If you fail to define the emotional core of your story, you’ll simply create a mess, and Hollywood is great at churning out awful movies without emotional cores, so don’t repeat their mistakes.