What makes a movie capable of still being entertaining despite the passage of time? Classics such as “Citizen Kane” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” are still memorable to this day, yet other popular movies from the past seem dated and laughable. The answer lies in its story structure.
One thing I love about sites such as Crackle, Hulu, and YouTube Movies is that they provide free access to movies that you can study. The drawback is that most of the free movies offered on these sites are utterly forgettable, but the advantage is that occasionally you can see a good movie that these sites offer temporarily. If you keep visiting these sites, you can watch some great movies for free.One movie that I never saw during its initial release was the 1981 comedy “Stripes” with Bill Murray. I remember everyone raving about it, so I watched it recently on Crackle and found it dull and lacking. To me, it wasn’t very well structured because there’s no real villain guiding the story from the start.
Initially, the problem is that Bill Murray is stuck in a dead end life and decides to join the Army. However, the beginning of the movie never hints at the conflict at the end, which involves Bill Murray trying to rescue his fellow soldiers from a Russian military base.
Think of “Top Gun” where the opening scene is a fight between F-14 Tomcats and a new MiG fighter jet. Then the ending of the movie is an enhanced version of these same planes dogfighting. The conflict at the end was set up by the smaller conflict at the beginning.
In “Stripes,” the only conflict in the beginning was between Bill Murray and his girlfriend so there’s no hint of what the final conflict will be at the end. The obstacles in “Stripes” initially are the drill sergeant and an incompetent captain. Bill Murray meets two female MPs along with some other people like John Candy, but none of these supporting characters have any goals of their own. They just exist for Bill Murray to advance the plot further along. As a result, “Stripes” felt like a sloppily made story.
Now consider the 1954 classic, “On the Waterfront.” Right from the start, Marlon Brando is involved in a conflict between the Mob and his own conscience as he accidentally helps kill someone with the Mob’s help. This beginning foreshadows the conflict at the end when Marlon Brando fights the Mob boss.
The supporting characters in “On the Waterfront” also have goals of their own. There’s a priest who is determined to make a stand and help the longshoremen, and there’s the first victim’s pretty sister, who Marlon Brando likes. The goals of the supporting cast dovetail nicely at the end with Marlon Brando finally faces the villain. Due to Marlon Brando’s actions, the supporting characters also achieve their goals too. Despite being made over 50 years ago, “On the Waterfront” is still a compelling story while “Stripes” is not.
The difference is simply story structure. Omit story structure and you might get lucky and have a hit like “Stripes,” but it still won’t be that good of a movie in the long run. Create a compelling story with the proper structure and you could create a classic like “On the Waterfront.”
Of course, “Stripes” made a lot of money while lesser known, but better structured movies, have faltered at the box office, so you have no control over anything other than trying to make the best story possible, and that’s all that really matters. If you’re looking to make a lot of money, you have the wrong goal. You should be looking to tell an interesting story, and hopefully Hollywood will turn your script into a box office sensation.