What you see in a movie usually isn’t what the story is really about. What you see is the method that the hero uses to achieve his or her goals. What you don’t see is the real story for why the hero wants to achieve a particular goal.
In every movie, there are usually two goals. The first goal is the obvious one. Rocky wants to win the championship. the Slumdog Millionaire wants to win a million dollars on a game show, humanity is fighting against aliens. However, if you look closer, the obvious goal often hides the real goal.
In “Rocky,” the real goal isn’t to win a championship, but to redeem himself and prove that he’s a winner, and Rocky can do that by fighting in the championship. In “Slumdog Millionaire,” the hero doesn’t really want to win but just wants to stay on the game show long enough for his girlfriend to catch him on TV. In “Independence Day,” the President wants to prove to himself and the world that he’s a leader, and he can do that by saving the world from invading aliens.
Where many screenplays fall apart is when the story only contains an obvious goal and the audience has no reason to care one way or another if the hero gets the goal or not. Think of all those bad slasher/horror flicks where a bunch of hapless victims get sliced and killed in a variety of gruesome ways. The whole appeal of such movies is seeing how people will die, but there’s often nothing beyond that.
If you provide another layer of depth in your story, by making your obvious goal an aspect of the hero’s real goal, you’ll make your story richer and more interesting. We may remember aliens blowing up the White House in “Independence Day,” but what makes us care on a subconscious level is the real goal of the President trying to prove himself as a world leader. The obvious goal shows us what happens. The real goal shows us what significance it has.
When you come up with a screenplay idea, make sure you know what your story is about on the obvious level and the real level. Your screenplay may be about Indians, but the real story might be about a man trying to find himself (“Dances With Wolves”). Replace Indians with a post apocalyptic disaster with a real story of a man trying to find himself and you wind up with the much weaker “Waterworld.” Get rid of the water, put the setting in a post nuclear war America and you have the exact same story (but also as weak) in “The Postman,” another Kevin Costner movie that tries to clone his success with “Dances With Wolves.”
Remember, every screenplay tells two stories. The obvious one is what you remember most about a movie, such as buildings blowing up and cars smashing into each other. The real story is what the characters want, and that’s not as obvious, but far more important. So make sure your screenplay has a real story and you may be surprised at how much this one little change can improve any of your scripts.