Most screenwriters start with a good idea. In most cases, that good idea is based on some physically interesting plot twist such as what would happen if a slob met a woman who could become the first female President of the United States? (“The Long Shot”) Or what would happen if aliens took over the world and teenagers had to save it? (“The 5th Wave”) What would happen if a woman gets dumped by her boyfriend, only to discover he works for the CIA? (“The Spy Who Dumped Me”)
There’s nothing wrong with starting with a good idea based on an interesting situation or challenge. The trouble is that that good idea often fails to include an emotional element.
Good ideas are usually based on the physical world. However, physical challenges are only interesting if they highlight an emotional challenge at the same time.
“Rocky” isn’t interesting because it’s a boxing movie. “Rocky” is interesting because it’s about a down-and-out man who wants one chance to prove he’s not a loser. There are a million ways to do that but fighting for the heavyweight championship of the world is a dramatic way to show Rocky not only overcoming physical challenges, but emotional ones as well.
The physical challenge facing the hero must always dramatize the emotional challenge the hero really needs to overcome.
In “Star Wars,” Luke Skywalker really needs to learn to trust himself, so what better way to challenge him than to force him to decide how to blow up the Death Star before it kills Princess Leia and the entire rebel force? He can rely on a computer or he can rely on himself, but if he fails, the consequences will be irreversible.
“The Shawshank Redemption” isn’t just a prison movie, but it’s about hope, and what better way to squash all hope than to force a man to bed tuck in a prison all of his life?
Start with a great physical challenge, but don’t stop there. Make sure your physical challenge also creates a huge emotional challenge for your hero as well. By doing this, you’ll elevate your story beyond the level of mediocrity.