Stories fail for several reasons but the common reason for failure is poor story structure. Story structure simply takes the audience on a journey from beginning to end, much like a train might take you on a journey from beginning to end. At all steps of the way, a story needs to explain what’s going on while keeping you entertained and wanting to know more.
Where stories fail is when that journey fails to go anywhere. Just as you wouldn’t want to ride a train for three days only to find you only traveled two feet, so you wouldn’t want to watch a movie where the hero doesn’t change or changes in such a small way that it seems trivial.
The movie “Everybody Wants Some!” was highly rated by critics. Yet it bombed in the box office. If you watch the movie, you’ll see that it simply fails to take the hero (and the audience) on a significant journey.
In “Die Hard,” the hero goes from being separated from his wife to fighting an army of terrorists to get back with his wife. That’s a huge change. In “Everybody Wants Some!” the hero goes from showing up at college before classes start to attending his first class. In between, he meets girls, parties, has fun, goes to more parties and bars, has fun, goes to more parties and bars, has fun, and goes to more parties and has fun. In other words, the hero in “Everybody Wants Some!” doesn’t change in any meaningful way.
He begins the story as a freshman and ends the story pretty much the same way. The only thing he’s done during the entire movie is meet a girl.
In romantic comedies like “Sleepless in Seattle,” the hero also meets a girl at the end, but the whole story revolved around trying to find the right girl. In “Everybody Wants Some!” meeting a girl is just part of the story. The rest of the story is about drinking, partying, meeting other girls, going to bars, goofing around, and waiting for classes to start. “Everybody Wants Some!” is a story that spends two hours taking the audience nowhere so it’s ultimately a disappointing movie. The hero barely changes, faces any problems, or goes through any emotional ups and downs. It’s like riding a rollercoaster that barely rises and dips and then finally ends ten feet from its starting point. Would you stand in line to ride a roller coaster like that?
Besides stories that don’t show much change, stories also fail when they neglect to take the audience from one point to another. This would be like a train with a bridge that’s been washed out.
In “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” the hero is a young boy out of high school who must fight his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriends (and girlfriends) in video game style martial arts combat. While visually interesting, the movie fails to help audiences accept this premise. How does a geeky 20+ year old boy suddenly know martial arts style fighting techniques? Why do his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriends/girlfriends want to fight and kill him? If you’re willing to make this leap of acceptance, then the story is interesting. If you don’t see how this makes sense, then the rest of the movie doesn’t make sense either.
“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” bombed at the box office but has become a cult favorite. That’s because the story failed to make sense to the general public but appealed to people who either knew about the graphic novel ahead of time or were willing to accept the outlandish premise that the hero would have martial arts fighting skills and would battle other people in video game style combat.
So make sure your hero goes through massive change. The more drastic, the better. The more the drastic the emotional ups and downs of the hero, the better. The bigger the obstacles the hero must overcome, the better.
What’s not good is showing little or no change in the hero, or forcing the audience to make giant leaps of imagination to accept something that doesn’t make sense.
In “Avatar,” we’re introduced to an alien world, but it all makes sense because the alien world behaves like the world we know where wild animals roam. In “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” we’re introduced to a seemingly ordinary world that suddenly shifts into a video game combat for no apparent reason.
Make your hero change dramatically and make the hero’s world make sense every step of the way. If you do that, you’ll avoid the two major story structure flaws of telling trivial stories (“Everybody Wants Some!”) or stories that don’t make sense (“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”).