It’s tempting to rush to the theaters every weekend to see the latest movies, but chances are good each weekend’s offerings will be less than satisfying. That’s because only a handful of great movies appear every year so your chances of seeing a great movie every weekend is small.
Instead of seeing the latest Hollywood movies each weekend, try watching older movies to study them. Older movies are often laughably dull compared to today’s faster paced movies, yet a handful are still compelling after all these years (or even decades). By studying these older movies, focus on what makes them work.
Perhaps the best movies to study are the ones that were initially failures at the box office. Critics hated “The Wizard of Oz” when it first appeared. Yet if you study the story structure, you can see it’s no different from today’s movies. Dorothy starts out with a problem (she wants to save Toto) and comes up with a solution (run away from home). Then she gets transported into the magical land of Oz and now her new problem is finding her way back home, which she was in the process of doing anyway until the tornado took her away.
So from start to finish, Dorothy changes. Initially she wanted to run away from home to save Toto, but near the end she realizes there’s no place like home. The entire story is about Dorothy trying to achieve that single goal of getting back home again.
Now study a recent movie like “The Martian.” The hero is an astronaut stranded on Mars and his goal is to stay alive and eventually get back to Earth. Everything he does is focused on staying alive and finding a way to get home again. First, he’s focused on survival by planting potato crops and living in the base. Second, he’s focused on communicating with Earth. Third, he’s focused on getting to a simple rocket so he can launch himself into orbit and get picked up by his passing spaceship.
Every goal is geared towards helping him achieve is initial goal, which is to get back home. Every obstacle threatens to stop him from his potato crops dying to having to jury-rig his equipment to keep him alive as he makes the journey to the rocket on the surface of Mars that’s far away from his base.
Where most screenwriters go wrong is when they focus on the exciting elements of a story and forget the underlying story itself. “The Finest Hours” was about the most daring Coast Guard rescue in history. Beyond the actual exciting events of a ship breaking up and floating away while the men wait for it to sink and think they’re doomed, “The Finest Hours” neglects to focus on a problem beyond the physical.
The main problem is that the Coast Guard needs to rescue some men before their crippled ship sinks, but where’s the emotional problem? Because the story is solely about the physical events, there’s little sense of emotional satisfaction. In all great movies, the villain must somehow provide a path for the hero to achieve his or her goal.
Initially the hero wants to get a girl and he does. Then he volunteers to search for the sinking ship. How does rescuing men off a sinking ship help the hero reach his goal of getting the woman he wants?
In “Die Hard,” the terrorists force the hero to fight to rescue his wife, and that makes him realize what a jerk he’s been in the past. So when he finally rescues his wife in the end, we feel emotionally satisfied that he’s probably not going to be a jerk again any more. Without the terrorists, the hero would never have learned this lesson and would not have likely gotten back with his wife.
In “The Wizard of Oz,” the wicked witch forces Dorothy to become resourceful and protect her friends. That’s when she realizes that what’s really important to her are her friends back home.
In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the mean banker keeps trying to take over the town so when the hero finally gets to see what type of town the villain would create, he learns his value in stopping the villain and how he’s truly rich with the friends he has.
Old movies become classics because their story structure works. By studying the underlying structure of the best movies from the past, you can get a better understanding for how to create the right structure for your own stories. By watching old movies, you can see that telling a story as a movie hasn’t really changed all that much despite today’s heavy use of computer-generated graphics and special effects. Ultimately, you still must tell an engaging story that no amount of special effects can ever replace.