When you see a great movie, you know it. Likewise, when you see a horrible movie, you also know it. What’s the difference between the two? If you can figure out what makes a good movie different from a bad movie, you can make sure that you write the best story possible.
Think of the classics like “Citizen Kane,” “Casablanca,” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” All great movies that have stood the test of time. Now think of a bad movie, and Hollywood regularly pumps those out every weekend. “Jonah Hex,” “The Last Airbender,” and “Clash of the Titans” are my latest favorites.
Obviously, nobody purposely sets out to write a bad movie, but it happens all the time so let’s examine what makes a good movie. By knowing this, you’ll improve your own chances of writing a good movie too.
When creating a story, ask yourself, “Why should the audience care?” What makes an audience care are three elements:
- A sympathetic hero
- A clear and important goal
- Seemingly overwhelming obstacles
First, you need a sympathetic hero. Without a sympathetic hero, nobody has a reason to care what happens. Just visit a coffeehouse or restaurant and look around. Do you care about any of the people around you? Unless they happen to be attractive, probably not. The reason you don’t care about the people around you is that you don’t know who they are or what they want. However, chances are good that if you did get to know someone, you might start to care about that person.
The key to caring is liking another person. If you meet someone you hate or simply dislike, you don’t care if they get what they want since you don’t care about that person. Here’s the secret. Audiences don’t cheer heroes. Audiences really cheer a hero who they can relate to.
Think of a romantic comedy. Both men and women can relate to the idea of finding that special person and falling in love. Audiences aren’t just cheering for the hero to succeed but they’re indirectly cheering for themselves to succeed.
In order words, your hero must be someone that the audience can like and respect and pursuing a clearly defined goal that the audience can understand and want to achieve as well.
Everyone wants love (think romantic comedies). Everyone wants money (think of drama where characters are trying to get money or drugs). Everyone wants to survive some horrible disaster (think of action-thrillers or disaster movies).
Love. Money. Survival. Clear-cut, basic needs that everyone wants. Even people who already have money can understand the desire to want money.
Once you know about someone who wants love, money, or survival, then you can sympathize with that person. Toss in an important goal, and you’ve got an even more sympathetic character.
Imagine staring at some guy in a restaurant eating alone. Boring, right? Now let’s say you learned that this person is struggling to pay his mortgage so he doesn’t get kicked out of his home. Now you may feel sympathetic towards this stranger.
Give this stranger a clear-cut goal of getting enough money to pay off the mortgage. That’s admirable, but let’s add in that this person wants to get money to pay the mortgage by embezzling funds and gambling it in a casino with the intent to win, use the winnings to pay off his mortgage, and then return the embezzled money back where it belongs.
Even if we don’t approve of the embezzlement, we understand why that person might do it. Now let’s make the person more sympathetic by making him or her a victim of circumstances. Suppose this person’s spouse died in a car accident and left the character with two young and frightened kids. As a parent, this character wants to keep his or her kids off the street, which further gains our sympathy and desire to see the character win.
To ratchet up our involvement in rooting for this character, let’s throw huge obstacles in the way. Say a stubborn bank examiner who hates this person and would love nothing better than to catch this person involved in embezzling. Now we have a sympathetic character, a clear goal, and frightening obstacles. Does this build suspense and grab our interest? You bet.
That’s what good stories do, they create a sympathetic character, show us a clear-cut goal, and throw seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the way to keep us glued to our chairs wondering, “Will the hero win or lose?”
That’s all there is to suspense and creating a good story. Putting these characteristics in reverse, here are the elements of a bad movie:
- A main character we don’t care about or can’t relate to.
- A murky goal that we don’t understand or care about because we don’t know the motivation behind it.
- Simple obstacles or obstacles that suddenly appear and disappear too quickly
Think of your favorite bad movie and chances are good that they fall into one of the above three qualities of a bad movie. It may be impossible to predictably create a great story, but you can always strive to create a good story because the last thing you want to do is create a bad story. After all, Hollywood already knows how to create bad stories. Just look at most of the movies they produce every year.