Stories are meant to entertain, but beyond this entertainment value, stories have also been used to reflect a culture’s values and tell a lesson. The question is what values and lesson does your story give to your audience?
The Bible is full of stories that make a point and teach us a lesson, but every great movie does that as well, and that’s what makes any story more appealing to an audience.
In a movie like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the lesson is simply that one person can be rich when surrounded by family and friends, regardless of the amount of money. In a movie like “The Incredibles,” the lesson is that you can’t always be a loner but you sometimes need the help of others. Even in a comedy like “Shallow Hal,” there’s a hidden lesson.
In “Shallow Hal,” a man suddenly can see people for their inner beauty rather than their outer beauty. Suddenly he can see that a seemingly plump girl is actually very beautiful inside, while a seemingly beautiful girl is shallow and ugly inside. In the most appealing movies, there’s always a lesson hidden inside.
Even in an action thriller like “Die Hard,” the thrill isn’t just in seeing Bruce Willis take out the bad guys because every Die Hard-like copycat movie did that too. What made “Die Hard” appealing was that Bruce Willis was fighting to get back with his wife.
In the Book “Save the Cat,” Blake Snyder says that you have to make your story simple enough for a cave man to understand it. Some examples that even a cave man (or a Hollywood producer) can understand are love and survival.
Every romantic comedy is about love, but even “Die Hard” is about love too. In examining “Die Hard,” you have a love story buried underneath a story of survival. The lesson can be simply that good triumphs over evil or that love conquers all. Story lessons don’t have to be complicated; they just have to be understandable.
In “Star Wars,” the lesson can be good triumphs over evil or that you need to trust yourself and a force greater than yourself. Whatever, but the point is that everybody comes away from a story with a lesson. “Star Wars” isn’t just about intergalactic battles, but something more and that something more is what made the movie so appealing even today.
“Star Wars” is part action and part philosophy. Trust the Force. All those silly “Star Wars” prequels pretty much made a mockery of the Force, but the first three original films kept it as a philosophical, religious experience. The reason the “Star Wars” prequels pale in comparison to the original trilogy is because they lost this deeper meaning or lesson.
Watch any of these early “Star Wars” prequels and ask yourself what lesson did you learn? You can still say that good triumphs over evil, but somehow it doesn’t feel as strong or as emotionally connected as the original trilogy. What’s missing is that the story doesn’t teach us anything.
“Shallow Hal” is a comedy that teaches us to look for the inner beauty in people. “The Phantom Menace” teaches us how not to make a prequel to a popular trilogy by throwing in a silly Jar Jar Binks and a meaningless story that teaches us nothing but substitutes special effects and action for substance.
In your story, what lesson are you trying to teach? Remember, you don’t want to preach, but you want to bury your lesson inside your story so it flows naturally without overwhelming the story.
In “Jaws” or “Alien,” the primal story is survival. In romantic comedies, the primal story is about love. Pick one, love or survival. In “The Phantom Menace,” was it about love? Not really. Was it about survival? Not really. Think that might have something to do with the way it failed to capture the public’s imagination like the original “Star Wars” did?
In your own story, is it about love or survival (or both)? Think of your favorite movie. Was it about love or survival? More importantly, did it teach you some lesson at the same time? A story that can teach a lesson and be about something primal has a far better chance of success than a story just about action with no lesson, love, or survival whatsoever.