The reason so many screenplays and movies seem dull is because nothing seems to be happening. When nothing seems to be happening, it’s because the hero isn’t pursuing a goal and getting closer. What’s more exciting to watch? A race between two cars or a single car stuck in the mud, spinning its wheels and going nowhere?
A car race is exciting because you can see it’s going somewhere and something’s going to happen soon because one car will win and the other car will lose. Stories must create that same type of tension and excitement by always having the hero moving forward towards a goal.
In Act I, the hero starts off in a dead end and moves towards hope of changing.
In Act IIa, the hero is hopeful about achieving a goal and then achieves some sort of victory.
In Act IIb, the hero feels despair and things just get worse.
In Act III, the hero admits his or her flaws and then gradually changes to become a better person.
In “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray plays an arrogant weatherman who wants to fall in love with a pretty producer. In Act I, his goal is to do a report on Groundhog Day while getting to know this pretty woman.
In Act IIa, he finds himself stuck in time. Initially he just learns what it’s like to repeat the same day over. Then he learns he can do anything he wants so he starts making love to different women until he finally tries seducing the pretty producer.
In Act IIb, the pretty producer has turned him down and no matter what he tries, he can’t seem to win her over. Now he sinks into despair and tries to kill himself and do all sorts of odd things just to see what might happen.
In Act III, he admits he’s been a jerk and slowly learns to change by helping others. Now by changing into a better person, he finally wins the heart of the pretty producer.
So the main goal, from Act I to Act III, is to win the heart of the pretty producer. The individual Acts provide mini-stories for the hero to pursue in order to achieve his overall goal.
Where too many movies fail is that they may have an overall goal, but the mini-stories in each Act make absolutely no sense at all. Start by outlining the main goal your hero wants. Then each Act must be like a stepping stone that brings him or her closer to that goal.
Act I is always about showing the hero’s dead end life and moving the hero towards hope.
Act IIa is always about getting the hero to achieve some type of False Victory that seems to have achieved the original goal but doesn’t.
Act IIb is always about getting the hero to feel despair because everything looks hopeless, but everything looks hopeless only because the hero refuses to change.
Act III is always about the hero finally admitting his or her flaws, and then changing into a better person. As a result, this gets the hero the initial goal he or she has been pursuing since Act I.
Think of every great movie and you’ll see this pattern. Think of every lousy movie and you’ll see how it fails to follow this pattern.
By always moving forward towards a goal, the story will always be interesting. By failing to move towards a goal, the story risks getting bogged down in special effects and meaningless action. Strive to make a good story. That’s the surest way to write a great screenplay.