In the beginning, your hero and villain are in opposite states. The villain, even if not seen initially, is confident, powerful, and well on his way to initiating a plan. The hero on the other hand, is trapped in a dead end life of his own making.
In a good movie, the hero’s own character flaw condemns him to a dead-end life. In order to achieve victory, the hero must learn to overcome his own flaw, which will help him overcome the villain. Essentially, the villain is a physical representation of the hero’s own internal flaw
In “Star Wars,” Luke is unsure of himself and his uncertainty keeps him stuck on his uncle’s farm. He remains unsure of himself all the way through the film until the end when he finally trusts in the Force and himself, and ultimately succeeds. When the hero learns to overcome his fatal flaw and overcome his dead end life (and the villain), we feel a sense of satisfaction.
That doesn’t happen in bad movies. In “The Last Action Hero,” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bomb in 1997, the hero is a boy who loves watching action movies. The problem is his dead end life isn’t really that bad. He neither has a goal he wants to achieve nor a big problem that’s making his life miserable.
In “Die Hard,” Bruce Willis’s attitude keeps him apart from his wife and only at the end when he realizes how much he loves her does he get her back again. In this case, Bruce Willis has both a goal (get back with his wife) and a dead end life (separated from his wife). When the hero has a clear goal and a clear problem, we can root for the hero.
In “The Last Action Hero,” the little boy has neither a clear goal nor a terrible dead end life. As a result, there’s little empathy to cheer for him and even less concern at the end when he and Arnold defeat the bad guys. The problem is simply that we don’t care about the hero because we don’t see how he’s stuck in a dead end life.
In “Ghostbusters,” Bill Murray wants a woman and he’s just lost his position at a university so he’s basically unemployed. He has a clear goal and a dead end life.
The quickest way a bad movie stumbles is by not giving the hero a dead end life of his own fault and not giving the hero a clear goal that we want the hero to achieve. Fail in those two points and it’s likely that your story will fail no matter how many special effects and action scenes you pepper your screenplay with afterwards. If you can’t show your hero with a clear goal and a dead end life, there’s nothing to keep our interest through the rest of the story.
In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” what’s the hero’s goal? It’s clear that he wants to leave the town. What’s his dead end life? His own reluctance to leave the town. Both are clear to everyone who watches it.
Now watch a bad movie like “The Last Action Hero.” There’s no clear sense of a goal or a fatal flaw of the hero keeping him stuck in a dead end life. Right from the start, “The Last Action Hero” fails to take off and that helps sink the story the rest of the way.
Make sure your hero has a clear goal and dead end life. Just those two items alone can put your story off on the right foot to carry you through to the end.