Most movies subscribe to the belief that audiences want to see more. More explosions, more action, more car crashes, more special effects, and more computer-generated images. That’s not true. What audiences really want to see is more suspense.
If you haven’t seen “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” the end alone is worth watching. (If you haven’t seen it yet, rent it right away or watch it on Hulu.com for free. Then come back and read the rest of this after you’ve seen it so I don’t spoil the movie for you.)
In both “Transformers” movies, the emphasis was always on watching more giant robots punching the living daylights out of each other. However, there’s nothing behind each robot battle. It’s just more and bigger battles without a clear goal or consequence behind all of this action.
Now compare this to the climatic scene in “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” where three gunfighters square off against each other and each of them has a reason to shoot the other two.
In a traditional gunfight, two men draw and the fastest draw wins. In this scene between three gunfighters, the fastest draw means nothing when you have two guns pointed at you. It’s a riveting and suspenseful scene that grips you because you want to see what happens. And yet, this climatic battle scene only involves three guns, not an army of men all shooting each other with explosions everywhere and buildings crashing to the ground. In short, in lieu of massive action, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” simply provides a simple scene where the consequences are clear and the outcome unknown. Who will shoot who first and who will survive? This scene alone puts all so-called “hits” to shame like both “Transformers” movies.
There are multiple twists at the end too. In a bad movie, the good guys try to achieve a goal and the bad guy tries to stop him. End of story and consequently, end of any intelligent person’s interest as well.
In “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” the ending is simple, yet with multiple little twists that catch you off guard and keep you wondering what will happen next. That’s great story-telling. Don’t just have your hero make a beeline towards a goal and achieve it. Make your hero suffer, and twist the ending so the audience can enjoy the mental game you’re playing with them.
Audiences want to be challenged. They don’t just want to watch a bunch of special effects robots smashing each other in the face. Audiences want to know what’s happening, and they also want to be surprised. What seems logical suddenly turns out to be improbable.
If any novice screenwriter submitted a script like “Transformers” without the backing of the toy company and fan base, most studios probably would have rejected it both because the story sucked and the special effects were too expensive.
Keep it simple. You don’t need special effects to make your story memorable. “Thelma and Louise” didn’t involve special effects and massive action. It just gave us a good story that could be inexpensively shot.
That’s what studios want. A good story that could be produced on a shoestring budget. Tell a great story and you’ll get studios running to your door. Tell a great story in a story that doesn’t require a lot of money to make, and you could have the next blockbuster that Hollywood will try to mimic with more action, more special effects, and more futile repetition once again.