Here’s a formula for making a lousy meal. Grab as much as you can and throw it in the pot, then hope something good will come out of it. Not surprisingly, this is the same formula that Hollywood uses to make a movie. Guess what? It never works.
Here’s the big difference between a good movie and a bad one. A good movie satisfies your sense of completion. A bad movie just tosses special effects, sexy scenes, and random action for the sake of showing you random action.
If you ever saw the awful American remake of “Godzilla,” you know how horrible a movie can get. Instead of giving us a coherent story, the movie just gave us Godzilla running around, battling tanks and helicopters. Even worse, the movie realized that watching Godzilla battling the army in the middle of a city can get old, so they threw in baby Godzillas running around like the velociraptors from “Jurassic Park.”
By adding Godzilla with small baby Godzillas, the movie tried to make a better story by adding more threats to the hero. It didn’t work and never will because just adding more stuff means nothing if there isn’t any emotional involvement behind all this additional stuff.
Now consider “Good Will Hunting” where Matt Damon plays a genius and Robin Williams plays a psychiatrist trying to help him. The story doesn’t just keep layering on special effects, action, and new characters. Instead, it digs deeper into its existing characters so we learn more about each one of them.
More importnatly, each character in “Good Will Hunting” acts like a funhouse mirror who shows Matt Damon the route that he could take in life. That’s the key to digging deeper into your existing characters. Don’t just make your characters feel like puppets that are all appearances and nothing more. Make your characters into real people that are intersting in themselves.
“Good Will Hunting” succeeds by digging into the dreams and history of nearly every major character. We feel that we know each character and we didn’t need to see any special effects to hold our attention to do it.
That’s what digging deeper means. If you’re writing a screenplay and feel stuck, don’t try to add a new scene, a new character, or a new goal. Try to dig deeper into your existing characters so we know more about who they are.
In my latest script, I discovered this when I added a whole new scene to give the hero trouble. However, this added scene felt unnecessary like an intrusion. After studying this problem, I decided that the real solution wasn’t to add more, more characters, more scenery, or more action. Instead, the answer was to go deeper into my characters and find new conflict inside of them so the audience really leanrs who these people are, what they’ve been through, and why they should care about them.
That’s what will make my script better, not by adding more stuff. And that’s what can make your script better too. TV shows make this mistake all the time. When they start running out of ideas, they introduce more new characters, which is the exact wrong thing to do. They should focus more on theri existing characters and give us a richer understanding of what makes the existing characters tick.
So go deep. Dig into your characters. Show us new things about old friends. That will hold us in our seats more than another helicopter explosion could ever do.