Look at the worst James Bond movies and James Bond essentially remains the same from beginning to end. But if you look at “Skyfall,” you’ll see that James Bond begins the story as a seemingly old and washed up agent who can no longer do the job. By the end of the movie, James Bond has proven that he’s still capable of doing his job.
The key to any story is making your character flaws big and obvious so the character spends the entire story trying to face and eventually overcome those flaws.
In “Die Hard,” the hero (John McClane) begins as a likable but arrogant man whose arrogance has kept him apart from his wife. Only later does he finally admit that he’s been a jerk and his breakup with his wife was his fault. Admitting his flaws allows him to face the villain and defeat him to win his wife back.
What makes “Die Hard” so enjoyable isn’t just the action scenes (all the inferior “Die Hard” sequels offer just as much action), but the character flaws that the hero and mentor must overcome. In the beginning, the mentor is unable to draw his gun since shooting a kid accidentally. By the end, the mentor draws his gun to kill the last terrorist.
In “Star Wars,” Luke changes from being timid and uncertain to being proactive and decisive. Hans Solo begins as a selfish man and changes to become selfless. It’s that emotional change, combined with the action scenes, that make “Star Wars” so enjoyable.”
“Central Intelligence” is a recent movie that also shows how character flaws become far more important than mere action. In the beginning, the hero was voted most likely to succeed, but twenty years later only has an ordinary job and feels like a failure. His mentor was embarrassed in high school because he was fat, and still feels that way about himself when confronted by the original bully who harassed him.
For all the action in “Central Intelligence,” it’s far less important than the change both the hero and mentor go through. The hero realizes that he’s not a failure after all and the mentor learns to confront the bully and punch him in the mouth. This emotional change is what makes a story, not more and bigger action scenes.
Far less successful than “Central Intelligence” is “Ride Along” and its equally weak sequel, “Ride Along 2.” The characters in both of these movies don’t really change that much. Because the emotions are absent in the hero and mentor, the overall story remains weak and unsatisfying despite any action.
Stories aren’t just about more action but emotion. Remember, audiences see themselves as the hero so if the hero changes to become a better person, then the audience changes along with them. If the hero fails to change, then the audience remains unmoved by the story.
Think of every bad movie and you’ll notice it lacks any kind of emotional attachment to the hero and/or mentor. Stories take us on a journey and the more emotional change the hero goes through, the more engaging that story will be. Subtract emotional change as in most bad sequels and you can see how more action never results in a better story.
What’s the difference between “Jaws” and “Jaws 4”? In “Jaws,” the hero is trying to redeem himself by killing a shark that killed a little boy. In “Jaws 4,” a shark simply keeps coming after a woman until she kills it in the most absurd manner possible. (The shark stands on its tail out of water so the hero can navigate a sailboat towards it and spear it with a wooden rod sticking out from the boat’s bow.)
Make sure your hero and mentor (and as many other characters as possible) go through emotional change. That will make your story far superior than just adding more action.