If you read many novice screenplays, one of the biggest flaws is that the hero doesn’t improve in any way. The key to any story is that the hero must gradually improve their life. In the beginning, the hero is stuck in a dead end life often as a victim. As the hero meets a mentor and gradually learns a lesson, the hero slowly improves his or her life until finally achieving a goal that the hero could never have achieved without the mentor’s lesson.
You can see this gradual improvement of the hero’s life in the recent spate of time travel movies. One of the most popular was “Groundhog Day” where the hero was forced to repeat a single day until he changed from a selfish, self-centered, egotistic jerk to a loving, caring person. By showing us the same scenes over and over again, “Groundhog Day” made it apparent how the hero was gradually improving. This gradual improvement is what drives your story forward towards the climax.
Another movie that makes it easy to see the hero gradually changing is “Source Code” where the hero is forced to relive the same terrorist attack over and over again until he discovers the identity of the terrorist bomber. Once again as the hero repeats the same moment in time, we see him gradually learning to care for others.
“Edge of Tomorrow” is the latest time travel movie that does this as well. Initially Tom Cruise is a raw soldier who has no idea how to fight. Gradually he learns to become a better fighter until he can save the world with his skills.
Study “Groundhog Day,” “Source Code,” and “Edge of Tomorrow” to see how the hero always (yes, always) gradually improves over the course of the story. This forward momentum keeps the story interesting and active as the hero pursues a physical goal along with the emotional goal of becoming a better person in the process of pursuing the physical goal. Now study a film that doesn’t use time travel and you’ll see that the hero gradually improves his or her life over time as well.
For example in “How to Train Your Dragon,” the hero is a skinny, weak Viking determined to show he’s tough enough to be a real Viking. When he actually downs a real dragon but can’t bring himself to kill it, he gradually learns more about dragons until he’s nearly an expert on dragon behavior.
In “Up” the old man feels his life is nearly over but in the process of taking his house to an exotic land through balloons, he gradually learns to become a better person by appreciating the present and his future without mourning the past.
Make sure your hero gradually improves over time and becomes a better person. You can see this gradual improvement more easily in time travel stories where the hero is forced to relive the same moment over and over again, but you can also see this gradual improvement in other good movies.
Gradual improvement for the hero is the key to a screenplay that keeps our interest from start to finish. When you can hold an audience’s attention from beginning to end, you’ll likely have a good story.