“Gravity” is a visually stunning picture but from a story perspective, it focuses mostly on external threats. By studying “Gravity,” you can see how external threats keep forcing the hero to act and react. Such deadlines keep the story moving because if the hero doesn’t do anything, she’ll die. Thus the hero has no choice but to keep moving.
The first deadline occurs when the hero has to get inside the shuttle before the debris hits. She fails to get back inside the shuttle with the result that shuttle gets torn apart and nearly all the astronauts but her and another one survive. As the only two survivors, their next goal is to get to the International Space Station for help. To spur them on, their next deadline is their oxygen supply. If they don’t get to the space station in time, they’ll run out of air so they have no choice but to go as fast as possible.
Once they get to the space station, the hero loses the other astronaut and manages to climb inside the space station. To keep her from sitting around doing nothing, a fire suddenly breaks out, forcing her to take the Soyuz rescue pod to the Chinese space station where she can take another Soyuz rescue pod to get back to Earth. Just as she escapes in the Soyuz craft, she gets stuck by its parachute cords keeping her tied to the space station.
Now the next deadline is that she has to cut the cord and free the Soyuz pod before more debris can hit her. When she frees the parachute cord, she finally gets to the Chinese station as it heads towards the atmosphere, ready to break up. Now she prepares the craft for re-entry and successfully splashes down as the remains of the Chinese space station burn up in the atmosphere. However, just as she opens the capsule door, water floods in, forcing her to react once more.
Finally she gets out of the space capsule and manages to crawl on to land. By constantly forcing a different deadline on the hero, “Gravity” keeps the story moving at all times. Each deadline is a mini-goal that forces the hero to overcome it.
While “Gravity” makes it easy to spot the numerous deadlines that keep the story moving, all good movies have this as well. In “Die Hard,” the hero has a goal of alerting the authorities. When he does that, his next goal is to help the SWAT team from getting slaughtered. After that, his next goal is to stop the terrorists from blowing up the hostages on the roof. Finally, his last goal is to rescue his wife. With all these mini-goals, the hero is forced to act and the story moves faster as a result. As soon as a movie lacks a deadline to keep the action moving, the story suddenly seems to drag.
So to keep your story moving, keep looking for deadlines to make the hero act. The more urgent your deadlines, the faster your story will tend to move.