All the action in the world means nothing if you don’t care about the hero. Therefore the first and most crucial part of any screenplay is to introduce an underdog hero with a clear and relatable problem. The problem must be clear so we know what the hero wants, and the problem must be relatable so we’ll feel emotionally attached to the outcome.
The strongest emotions are love and hate, so use one of those to make your hero’s problem relatable. What do “Die Hard,” “WALL-E,” and “The Proposal” have in common? They’re all about the hero trying to find love.
In “Die Hard,” the hero is trying to get back with his wife, who he still loves. In “WALL-E,” the hero is trying to find someone to love on a desolate planet. In “The Proposal,” the hero is trying to stay in America to work but really needs to find love. Whether it’s a comedy or an action thriller, the hero looking for love is a common goal that’s relatable and understandable to everyone.
Now let’s look at hate. Hate is less common and popular than love, but it’s still a strong enough emotion to make the hero’s problem relatable and clear. Think of “Kill Bill,” “John Wick,” or “The Revenant.” Hate generally works best with action thrillers while love is far more common for comedies, drama, and action thrillers.
Between love and hate is a third option that’s not as emotionally charged as love and hate, but is still common. That emotion is finding happiness.
The hero begins the story feeling empty and needing something to fill that emptiness. Luke in “Star Wars” wants to be somebody but doesn’t know how or what to do. “Star Wars” is actually little different from “The Intern” where the hero is a 70-year old widower who wants to find a life for himself in retirement and gets a job as a senior intern for an Internet company. Finding happiness is also the driving force behind “Creed” where the hero wants to be known for his own skills rather than living in the shadow of his famous father, the boxer Apollo Creed.
So between love, hate, and finding happiness, you have three strong problems for a hero that’s clear and relatable to everyone. Pick one. If your story lacks one of these strong emotions, chances are good your story is weaker than it should be, so shore it up with love, hate, or finding happiness and you’ll find your story will magically become more compelling by making this seemingly trivial change.