If you watch any bad movie, you’ll notice they almost always start with a good idea. Where bad movies fail is that the appealing idea goes nowhere. That’s because the real story people want isn’t the physical action of what happens but the emotional understanding of why it happens.
A movie’s longline typically tells you What. The emotional payoff tells you Why.
In “Die Hard,” it’s easy to believe the movie’s all about one man battling an army of terrorists alone in a skyscraper. Yet the real story is about one man trying to get back with his wife.
In “Independence Day,” the story might seem to be about aliens invading the world, but the real story is about the President learning to become a true leader by fighting against the aliens.
In a recent holiday movie, 8-Bit Christmas,” the story might seem to be about a father telling his daughter about how he got a Nintendo game console. However, the real story is about how the father learned what’s important about Christmas. It’s not about having material possessions like a Nintendo game console or an iPhone. Instead, Christmas is really about cherishing your time with others and learning to care about one another.
If you start with an intriguing plot, you risk creating a mediocre story filled with lots of action but empty of emotion. However, if you start with the emotional story you want to tell, then you can shape all action to highlight and support that emotional payoff.
That’s the secret to telling a great story.
Think of “Star Wars” and why it captivated the world. Then think about those awful prequels that are universally hated by anyone except the most fanatical fans.
The original “Star Wars” story told an emotional story about how Luke changed form being a timid farm boy to trusting the Force. The prequels simply showed a lot of mindless action about how Darth Vader became who he was.
Think of nearly every great movie that was turned into an awful sequel. The great movie had an emotional story while the awful sequel abandons the emotional story and layers on more visual action, which is never the formula for success.
Every great movie is an emotional story that resonates with people because they can relate to the feeling. Every bad movie starts with a good idea but fails to offer any type of emotional story whatsoever.
Make sure your screenplay tells an emotional story. That’s the first step. Then the second step is to tell an appealing physical, visual story. Get those steps in the right order and then tell your story in an intriguing manner. Do that and you’ll likely avoid writing a mediocre movie.