Watch any mediocre movie and you’ll notice it lacks coherence and focus. In place of a tight, focused story, you get random special effects, characters who seem out of place, and meaningless action. Watch a bad movie like “Mortal Engines” or “The Spy Who Dumped Me” and you’ll see this scattershot approach to storytelling at work.
Then watch a good movie like “Shazam” and you’ll see a tightly focused story. In “Shazam,” the hero is abandoned by his mother as a young child and left to grow up in foster homes. As a result, he thinks he doesn’t need a family and should only care about himself.
That theme gets mirrored by the villain, who should always be the evil version of the hero. In “Shazam,” the villain is a child who is bullied by his older brother and father so he also grows up thinking he should only look out for himself because he can’t rely on a family.
The conflict in “Shazam” doesn’t derive from meaningless action. Instead, the conflict stems from the hero’s dilemma: he needs to learn to work with others but he’s leaning towards simply being selfish.
So one of the earliest conflicts involves the hero skipping school and using his super powers to show off and make money while ignoring everyone who truly cares for him.
Every conflict in “Shazam” stems from this dilemma. The hero wants to be selfish while he really needs to learn to care for others. This causes the hero to argue and separate from his foster brother. When he saves the life of his foster sister, he tries to convince her to leave home and look out for herself while she’s torn about leaving her family. Although this conflict is verbal with no action, it still highlights the inner conflict within the hero and is more relevant and meaningful than mindless action could ever be.
Where mediocre stories go wrong is that they fail to tell a unified story. Instead, they grasp at senseless action for the sake of visual stimulation in lieu of actual tension and conflict.
Where good stories get it right is by focusing on a unified story where the villain is the evil version of the hero and he or her mirror image. Then the conflict of the story stems from the hero torn between two choices and constantly trying to decide which choice to embrace until the very end.
Good stories are unified. Bad stories are a mess. Keep watching good and bad movies until you can easily spot the difference.