Nothing makes a movie seem dull and drag on than unclear goals for both the villain and the hero. If we don’t know what the two main characters want, then any amount of action (explosions, car chases, gunfire, etc.) means nothing.
For the hero, the goal needs to be emotional. Watch any musical and you’ll see the hero singing a song about what he or she wants. This goal must be emotional because when the hero achieves it (or not) in the end, that emotional ending makes the climax of the story far stronger and memorable. Nobody watches “Star Wars” or “Titanic” again because they want to see spaceships shooting lasers at each other or watch an ocean liner sink. People watch great movies because they want to experience the emotion of the story all over again.
For the hero’s emotional goal, the story must change the hero usually for the better. In “Stranger Than Fiction,” the hero finds himself a character in a novelist’s story who plans to kill him off in the end. When faced with this inevitable ending, the hero resolves to make the most of his life by making the lives of those around him better. This changes the hero from an ordinary man with somewhat selfish goals to a man who deeply cares about others and resolves to make his life mean something to the world.
The hero’s emotional goal centers around change. We don’t cheer the hero in “The Karate Kid” because he beats the villain in the end. We cheer because he’s also learned to trust himself and become a better person in the end. In “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” the hero starts out his senior year in high school trying to be invisible to everyone to avoid any possible emotional entanglements. He changes by being forced to befriend a girl dying of leukemia and has to face his greatest fears, which is to connect with people around him on a more than superficial basis. By the end, he makes enemies, depends his friendship with his best friend, and learns that life isn’t about avoiding emotions but embracing them. His victory in the end is that he changes.
All emotional goals are really about change. Make the hero change and the story becomes far more engaging. Keep the hero the same person from beginning to end and you wind up with mediocre movies like many James Bond films that emphasize action over character development.
The villain also needs a clear goal so we know what the hero is fighting against. The villain doesn’t have to be someone trying to destroy the hero so much as the villain must throw obstacles in the hero’s way to force the hero to change. Yet the villain\’s actions make no sense unless we know what the villain wants and the Horrible Consequences if the villain should succeed.
When we know what the villain wants, then we know why the villain\’s actions make sense. When we see the Horrible Consequences, then we know what the hero is up against. In “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” the villain is the Boogeyman who kills anyone who comes into his torture chamber. Once we see this Horrible Consequence, we know why we should root against the villain.
After the Boogeyman kills someone in “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” we see the fate of Santa Claus when he’s later caught by the Boogeyman. In “Star Wars” we’ve already seen Darth Vader blow up an entire planet with the Death Star. Now we know exactly the fate of Princess Leia and the rebel base at the end with the Death Star approaching.
Change makes the hero’s emotional goal more compelling. The Horrible Consequences of the villain’s actions makes the villain’s defeat (and fear of his or her victory) more emotionally engaging as well.
Emotions are the key to a great story and you can’t create emotion through endless action that makes no sense. Develop your story first and then focus on making the action support the story, not the other way around. The best stories are those that tug on the emotional heart strings of the audience.