In your story, either your villain or your hero must have a clear goal to pursue. Sometimes only the villain has a clear goal such as in “Star Wars” where Darth Vader clearly wants to destroy the rebel base (although we don’t know this initially) while Luke has a more vague goal of simply wanting to leave his boring planet. Sometimes only the hero has a clear goal such as in “Little Miss Sunshine” where the little girl hero wants to compete in a beauty pageant but there is no single villain blocking her way.
A clear goal for either the villain or hero defines the story. Without a clear goal, you have a vague idea that often goes nowhere. In “The Martian,” the hero’s goal is clear. He wants to get back to Earth after being stranded on Mars. Every scene does nothing more than show him striving to reach that goal. By focusing on a clear goal, each scene has a single purpose like building blocks that fit together. In “Room,” the hero’s goal is clear. She wants to escape her prison inside a garden shed.
What happened when a goal isn’t clear? Then you get lots of scenes that don’t make sense or that drag the story out. Even if you have a clear goal for your hero or villain, you must still focus every scene on reaching that goal.
Bad movies fail by either not having a clear goal for the hero or villain, or by adding scenes that have nothing to do with achieving the clear goal. In “The Maze Runner,” the hero finds himself trapped in a maze with memories of being outside of the maze. By the end of the movie, the hero has managed to get out of the maze, but the earlier scenes of his hazy memories of being outside the maze are never explained and serve no purpose in helping him get out of the maze.
In the book, these useless scenes are explained partially because the hero helped design the maze and volunteered to have his memory erased so he could go into the maze. Yet even in the book (which is never explained in the movie), this makes zero sense and is never explained. Even if you read the sequels to “The Maze Runner” or watch the sequel, you’ll still never get an answer. The hero’s goal is clear: to get out of the maze. The hero’s memories of being outside the maze make no sense and have no relevance in helping the hero get out of the maze. As a result, these scenes tease but never make sense. In the end, “The Maze Runner” is nothing more than a big tease that ends inconclusively in an emotionally unsatisfying manner.
Every scene must not only move the story closer to the goal, but it must also make sense in the process. Teasing the audience is fine, but ultimately that tease must make sense. In “Die Hard,” there’s a scene where the villain kills the president of the company throwing the Christmas party. This serves two purposes. First, it shows how ruthless the villain can be. Second, it teases the audience on the villain’s motive. What’s in the safe that the villain wants unlocked?
Eventually we learn what’s in the safe and that answers that question. Each time you tease the audience with an unknown question, you must eventually answer that question. “Die Hard” does this and tells a complete story. “The Maze Runner” (both the book and movie) teases us with unknown questions and never answers those unknown questions so we’re left knowing no more at the end than we did at the beginning.
Imagine if “Star Wars” showed us the Death Star blowing up Princess Leia’s planet, then at the end of the movie, the Death Star plays no part. The unanswered question when we first see the Death Star is to wonder what Darth Vader will use it for, but if the Death Star never appeared at the end of the movie, we’d be left wondering why the movie showed the Death Star at all.
When your story has a clear goal to pursue, it can tease the audience along the way but it must finally answer any unanswered questions in the end. That’s the result of having a clear goal and using that clear goal to make sure we understand what the earlier teases meant.
In “The Sixth Sense,” there are plenty of teases about the hero that ultimately gets answered when we realize the hero was also one of the dead people walking around that the little boy could see and talk to. How exciting would “The Sixth Sense” have been if all of these earlier teases were never explained?
A clear goal acts like a direction for your story. Just as you would never hop on an airplane without knowing where you were going, so you should never write a screenplay without knowing the goal of the hero (or villain) at the end. The beginning and middle teases the audience and intrigues them, but the ending answers those questions with a clear goal that everyone can understand.