Imagine being stuck in a car and not knowing where you’re going, how long it will take, or when the trip will ever end. Now imagine taking the same journey knowing exactly where you’re going and when the trip will end. That’s the difference between a goal and not having a goal.
One of the latest trends in movies is the documentary style of filmmaking. Michael Moore started it with “Roger and Me” where the goal was to speak to then-General Motor’s CEO, Roger Smith. What made this documentary so interesting was because Michael Moore had a goal of telling Roger Smith what General Motors was doing to the city of Flint, and everything Michael Moore did was leading him closer to this goal.
Since you knew his goal from the start, you knew where the movie was going and when it was going to reach its end. Take another documentary called “Super Size Me” where the goal was to eat every meal at McDonald’s for a month. That was a clear goal and we knew exactly where it was taking us and when it would end.
In “Roger and Me,” the goal would end when Michael Moore finally met Roger Smith. In “Super Size Me,” the goal would end after 30 days. In the first case, the goal would end when a situation occurs, but we don’t know when that situation might ever occur. In the second case, we know that a time deadline will cause the movie to end no matter what. As a result, time deadlines are often excellent ways to drive your story forward because a time deadline, like a ticking time bomb, generates suspense because we know exactly when the story must end.
Now consider Michael Moore’s other documentary, “Capitalism: A Love Story.” What’s the goal beyond showing the abuses of capitalism by certain people and organizations? The documentary is just a mess of different events with no sense of direction or goal, and ultimately a completely unsatisfying story.
This is the reason why every story needs a clear direction right from the start. In most movies, the beginning of the story is murky and confusing, but gradually we begin to understand what’s going on. In “The Terminator,” we have no idea who these two naked men are and what they’re trying to do. Then gradually we start to understand what’s happening. Even though we don’t know everything right from the start, you can tell that the screenwriter did and that’s what keeps the story moving forward to an inevitable conclusion.
Think of a bad movie that you couldn’t stand. Chances are good that you didn’t like it because there was no clear goal explicitly stated at the beginning of the story. As a result, the story probably just wandered and drifted lifelessly with no sense of purpose or focus.
Just watch any of the horrible movies stored on free video sites like Hulu or Crackle. Most of these movies are awful and by watching bad movies, you can see where they fell apart.
The only movie I ever walked out on in the theater was called “Married To It.” To this day, I still have no idea what the movie was about because it just seemed like a random collection of scenes and characters with no clear direction. At least in “Thelma and Louise,” we knew they were going on a vacation so there was a sense of direction. In “Married To It,” I couldn’t figure out what the story was about so I didn’t care what happened to any of the characters, and nothing seemed important, so the entire story seemed pointless.
Another pointless movie that I couldn’t even finish watching was one called “The Sheltering Sky.” I watched this with a group of friends and after about 30 minutes, nobody could figure out where the story was going or why we should care, so we all agreed to shut the video off and do something else.
That highlights the importance that you, as the screenwriter, must know your story and where it’s going right from the start. Unlike a novel that can afford to meander and wander around, movies must be lean, focused, and directed towards a clearly defined goal right from the start, even if we initially don’t understand what that goal might be. We still need a sense that something is happening and we want to know what.
Sometimes watching bad movies can teach you just as much as watching good movies, so don’t be afraid to see all kinds of movies. Just be aware that it costs just as much to see a bad movie as it does to see a good movie, so you might as well pay only to see a good movie and use free movie sites like Hulu and Crackle to watch any bad movies for free. At least then you’ll only have wasted your time, not your money.