Watch most of Hollywood’s latest movies and it’s easy to see the basic formula of using guns and sex to attract an audience. The problem with that method is that guns and sex alone aren’t the real appeal of any movie. It’s the story that Hollywood overlooks every time. You don’t want guns and sex for no reason. You want guns and sex to serve a higher purpose.
Movies like “John Wick” and “The Equalizer” are entertaining because it taps into the raw emotion of revenge. However, neither can be considered great movies because they lack a strong emotional resonance within the audience. When people saw the ending of “Titanic,” they weren’t cheering the hero’s escape from an unhappy marriage but for her ultimate embrace in controlling her life. That’s the strong emotional core that made people want to see “Titanic” again and again. Everyone knew the Titanic sank. Everyone knew the story after they saw it for the first time. Yet people keep seeing it multiple times because they enjoyed the emotional rush at the end that was carefully plotted from the beginning. By taking audiences on an emotional journey that makes them feel they’re going through that same journey as well, great movies move people emotionally. Bad movies just waste our time, and average movies tell us an interesting story but rarely entices us to pay money to watch it again.
Ultimately, your story will be much stronger if audiences feel emotionally changed along with the hero.
Women loved “Thelma and Louise” because it tapped into their own fears and frustrations of the world around them. On the other hand, many men did not like “Thelma and Louise” because they felt it was man-bashing.
“Titanic” appealed to everyone who wants control of their lives. Great romantic comedies like “When Harry Met Sally” or “Sleepless in Seattle” grabbed out attention because everyone wants to believe they can find the perfect love of their life. Bad movies simply try to distract us with gunfire and naked actors, but all that doesn’t matter if you don’t have a compelling story to tell behind it.
There’s nothing wrong with guns and sex. “Pulp Fiction” was loaded with guns and sex, but the deeper meaning was about people changing their lives. “Django Unchained” was far less interesting than “Pulp Fiction” because it was basically a revenge story much like “Kill Bill.” “Kill Bill” was about a woman getting revenge on her former lover. “Django Unchained” was about a slave trying to get back his wife. Both are interesting movies loaded with guns and violence, but neither has the deeper meaning of “Pulp Fiction” that focuses on people deciding to change their lives.
People might watch “Kill Bill” again for the action scenes but they’ll be less likely to watch “Django Unchained” for the same reason. Yet “Pulp Fiction” is more of a cult film that people will watch multiple times like “Star Wars” because the underlying story is more emotionally important.
In “Star Wars,” Luke learns about the Force, which is like a religious experience. In “Pulp Fiction” people learn to change and the people who don’t change wind up dead. In “Django Unchained,” there’s less of an emotional story that appeals to everyone. A slave wanting to rescue his wife from slavery is interesting, but has far less emotional appeal than the theme of “Pulp Fiction” that focuses on people changing their lives. People can relate to changing their lives. People can’t relate to rescuing a loved one from slavery.
So your story ultimately has three layers. There’s the superficial layer of action, which is where bad movies stop. The second layer is the emotional story for the hero, which is where good movies stop. Everyone can understand the revenge motivation in “Kill Bill” or “Django Unchained.”
The third layer is where great movies go by teaching us about ourselves and the world around us. Originally, primitive people told stories to help them make sense of the world around them such as why the leopard has spots or why the sun rises every morning. These stories meant something to people because everyone wants to understand their own lives better.
Primitive tribes likely told stories just about violence, and those stories were soon forgotten. Primitive tribes probably told interesting stories about motivated heroes, and those stories likely faded away as well. The only stories that stick around are those that help us understand our world.
- Superficial storytelling – Keeps audiences entertained through lots of action and interesting plots
- Hero-driven storytelling – Helps us understand the motivation of the hero
- Audience-driven storytelling – Helps the audience understand themselves
Focus on changing the emotions of your audience and their understanding of themselves, and you’ll likely change the world.