To make a compelling story, start with an impossible goal. That impossible goal alone will make people wonder, “How can the hero solve this problem?”
Impossible goals are intriguing because they are so puzzling, which makes people want to know what happens next. The more vivid and detailed you can make this impossible goal, the more likely it will grab an audience.
In “Die Hard,” this impossible goal is that one man by himself must fight an army of terrorists in a skyscraper. That’s a story people want to read or see because they want to know how the hero can possible overcome this seemingly impossible goal.
While action/thrillers can be easy to create impossible goals, every genre can create impossible goals as well. The romance “Sleepless in Seattle” created the impossible goal of one woman trying to meet a man but both live in completely different cities (Seattle and Baltimore).
In “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” this impossible goal is much simpler, but still intriguing. In this movie, the hero is given the ask of painting the portrait of a woman, but the restriction is that this woman doesn’t want her portrait painted so the hero must paint this portrait without the other woman knowing about it.
In the comedy “Back to the Future,” a teenager goes back in time and must get his parents to meet so he can be born in the future. In another comedy, “The Hangover,” the hero must find his missing friend by piecing together the events of the previous night that nobody seems to remember.
In “Memento,” the impossible goal was for a man to find his wife’s killer, except this man has brain damage and can’t remember anything from the previous day.
In “WALL-E,” the hero wants to find someone to love, except he lives alone on an abandoned planet.
Think of flops and mediocre movies and ask yourself if they pose an impossible goal for the hero to achieve. Sometimes they do, but fail to execute the story well. Other times, they simply fail to pose an impossible goal and that kills the story right from the start.
In “Mortal Engines,” the hero has to stop the villain from using a destructive weapon to destroy a city. Yet this goal is so generic with few restrictions that the entire story feels unfocused, blunt, and boring as a result. What makes this goal seemingly impossible for the hero to achieve? Not much, and that’s why this story is so dull.
Another flop, “Birds of Prey,” has a similar problem. The hero, Harley Quinn, has to save a girl from an evil crime lord. Right away, does this storyline feel impossible to make you wonder what happens and how she can possibly win? Not really, and this lack of an impossible goal is what makes the overall story feel weak as a result.
In your own screenplay, ask yourself if your story poses a seemingly impossible goal. If not, rework your story until the story poses a seemingly impossible goal that will grab anyone and make them wonder, what happens next?