Every movie can teach you something, whether it’s how to properly structure a story (“The Incredibles,” “Wild,” “Guardians of the Galaxy”) or how to avoid mistakes in structuring a story (“Maleficent,” “Tomorrowland,” or “San Andreas”).
When you watch a good movie, it not only entertains you with visually interesting images, but it also strikes an emotional chord as well. Good movies are more than just entertaining stories; they’re lessons that help explain life.
In the early days of story telling, people told stories to explain the world around them such as why thunder makes noise (the gods are bowling in the clouds) or why cats and mice don’t get along. When you’re coming up with your own story idea, the biggest mistake is to think of what’s marketable.
That means people often see a popular movie and decide to create a literal clone of that same movie. That winds up creating a mediocre story at best.
When “Die Hard” came out, Hollywood rushed out a series of other outnumbered hero facing terrorist stories where the pitch was “It’s like ‘Die Hard’ but in a ________” where you could state any location to fill in the blank.
You don’t want to write a story just because you think it will be marketable because chances are extremely high that you’ll write a mediocre story at best. What you want to do is create a story that explains the world from your point of view.
Study your favorite movies and you’ll notice that they’re more than just mere action. The best movies tell you something about your world whether it’s a comedy, horror, or drama.
- “The Shawshank Redemption” is about hope, but it’s set in a prison.
- “Titanic” is about living life to its fullest, but it’s set on a doomed ocean liner.
- “Alien” is about the horrors of the unknown, but it’s set in outer space.
- “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” is about finding love, but it’s set in a shopping mall.
By identifying what you want your story to say, you can lay the foundation for creating a great movie. If you’re just trying to piggyback on the latest trend, you’ll likely create garbage instead.
Studying great movies can show you what to do. However, studying bad movies can often be more instructive because it can show you what not to do.
Sin #1: Focus on Action and Ignore Character Development
When you hear people talking about the lack of character development, what they’re really talking about is the lack of change. All heroes must change based on your story’s theme. In the beginning, your hero is weak. By the end of your story, your hero is strong. To change, your hero must learn emotional lessons about himself and have the courage to become a better person.
To see the lack of character development, just look at almost any sequel. Some of the best movies are actually sequels (“Terminator 2,” “Aliens,” and “The Godfather Part II”) but most of the time, sequels take the same characters and the same plot, and drain it of any character development whatsoever in the following manner:
- The hero doesn’t change
- The mentor doesn’t exist or doesn’t redeem him or herself through confronting the villain
- None of the hero’s allies change or have goals of their own
When you eliminate the changes in secondary characters (or even the hero himself), you strip a story of any emotional impact whatsoever. That winds up creating a pale imitation of the original movie like “Legally Blonde 2,” “Speed 2,” or “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2.” When you just focus on pure action (“Terminator 3”) with no theme, you wind up just repeating the original movie but without the emotional interest.
Remember, nobody watches movies multiple times because they want to see the same action. Instead, they want to experience the emotion that the movie creates by focusing every story element to support the story’s theme.
More action is never the answer (“Babe: Pig in the City”). The hero and all the secondary characters must still go through emotional change, which is what makes “Toy Story, “Toy Story 2,” and “Toy Story 3” so memorable.
“Jaws” wasn’t about a shark, but about a sheriff trying to redeem himself for failing to protect people from the shark. “Jaws 4” was about nothing but a shark threatening to attack one woman’s family even to the point of absurdity where the shark follows the woman’s family to the Bahamas.
Sin #2: Lack of a Theme
If a movie lacks a strong theme, it lacks any reason for people to want to watch the movie over and over again. Cult films gain a following because people enjoy the emotional experience of the story. “Harold and Maude” is about living life on your own terms, which is also the theme for “Titanic.”
Where sequels and bad movies go wrong is that they focus on the plot and not the theme. “Star Wars” was about a young man searching for adventure and finding it, which is a desire almost everyone can relate to. “The Phantom Menace” and all the “Star Wars” prequels were a long, drawn out story explaining where Darth Vader came from with no hint of an emotional story anyone can relate to whatsoever.
“Jurassic Park” was about the danger of humans meddling with nature. “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” was just about showing a dinosaur in a city.
Sin #3: Poor Choice of a Villain
If you don’t have a strong villain, your hero has no obstacles that threaten to derail his or her pursuit of a goal. In “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” the basic story is about how the CIA leaked phony information that they were pursuing psychic research. The goal was to trick the Russians into wasting time and money trying to catch up by also pursuing psychic research.
When the CIA learn that the Russians fell for the trick and start pursuing psychic research, they panic and feel if the Russians are studying psychic research, then the CIA may fall behind, so they also start pursuing a psychic research program, based on their own trick to convince the Russians to waste time and money. Eventually both sides wind up pursuing oddball projects such as trying to stop a goat’s heart by staring at it or running through a solid wall.
The idea is funny, but there’s no strong villain for the hero to fight against. The end result is a potentially funny movie that goes nowhere because there’s no unified series of obstacles that the hero must overcome in pursuit of a goal.
“The Green Lantern” failed as a superhero movie because the villain is a giant gaseous cloud. In most other superhero movies, the villain is just as powerful as the hero such as Thor facing his brother Loki or Iron Man facing a villain in a more powerful iron suit. If your villain isn’t a mirror image of your hero, the villain won’t feel threatening enough.
A strong villain is crucial because the villain provides a path for the hero to achieve his or her emotional goals. Without Hans and his army of terrorists, John McClane in “Die Hard,” would never have found a way to get back with his wife. Without Darth Vader in “Star Wars,” Luke would never have found a way to live an adventure.
A strong villain literally provides a path that leads your hero to his or her goal. Without a strong villain, your hero has no path to a goal and you have no story.
Sin #4: No Integrated Stories
A movie is more than just a hero pursuing a goal against a villain. A movie is really about a hero pursuing a goal against a villain, and having secondary characters pursue similar types of goals as the hero.
In “Legally Blonde,” the hero wants to find love and so does her hairdresser who’s her ally along with her nerdy male classmate. In search of her own love, the hero helps all of her allies find love as well. That’s an example of unified and integrated stories.
What happens if your hero is off pursuing love while your mentor and ally are off pursuing revenge or riches? Then you get a disjointed story. Essentially you’re telling multiple themes within the same movie, and it never works.
Every movie has one theme and everything in that movie supports and revolves around that one theme. In “Maleficent,” the hero is trying to get back her wings, which represents her freedom. What do her allies want? Nothing. They just seem to exist solely to help the hero. Because the allies have no goal thematically related to the hero’s goal, the presence of the allies in “Maleficent” do nothing whatsoever to help the theme and basically waste time and bore us instead.
Look at the difference between a good movie and a mediocre one. In “Maleficent,” only the hero seems to have a goal of any kind and everyone around her seems to exist solely to help her out. In “Die Hard,” multiple people change from John McClane to the black police officer to John McClane’s wife to the limousine driver. All of these multiple character changes help reinforce the change of the hero and create a multi-dimensional story.
Instead of just seeing the hero change, we get to see the hero change and multiple characters change as a result of the hero’s actions. That creates a stronger story. In “WALL-E,” WALL-E actually remains the same hopeful optimist he was from beginning to end, but his actions help change the lives of everyone around him from Eve to the human couple who find love to the role robots rebelling against the villain to the starship captain. With so many people changing, the whole story becomes far more interesting to see how everyone changes.
Sin #5: Absurd, Unrealistic Actions
Most people liked the first three Indiana Jones movies. Those same people dislike the fourth sequel, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” The most disliked scene is when Indiana Jones hides in a lead lined refrigerator to escape a nuclear blast.
Throughout all the previous Indiana Jones movies, we’ve come to expect improbable escapes, but surviving a nuclear blast in a refrigerator went too far in most people’s minds. As soon as you cross the threshold of believability, you’ll lose your audience.
No matter how fantastic your story may be, it must always be based on reality. Even though “Star Wars” deals with a world in another galaxy, it’s still familiar to use since lasers resemble guns and light sabers resemble swords. Everything remains rooted in the same reality we all know.
Now look at the “Star Wars” prequels where both the hero and villain use the Force to do practically everything. Poison gas coming at you inside a locked room? Solve that by using the Force. Someone shooting a laser at you? Solve that by using the Force. A giant pillar about to topple on top of you? Solve that by using the Force.
Because the Force can be used to solve everything, it dilutes its effect. After all, why bother doing anything if the Force can simply solve it instead? In the original “Star Wars,” the Force more closely resembled intuition that would help characters make correct decisions, but the characters still had to act. In the “Star Wars” prequels, the Force replaces action with just a hard stare and magically everything always works out. That’s boring and disconnected from the reality we all know in our own world, and that helps sink the “Star Wars” prequels to the land of mediocrity.
Sin #6: No Action and No Goals
There’s a cliche that American movies tend to emphasize action in lieu of substance. On the other hand, European movies tend to emphasize substance in lieu of action. In bad European foreign films, characters anguish over their plight and talk about their emotions, but they don’t do anything.
In bad American movies, characters are constantly doing something. It’s just that nobody knows why other than to create another visually exciting but empty scene. In bad European movies, nothing seems to happen because the characters don’t take action.
Action doesn’t mean grabbing a machine gun and blowing up an oil tanker. Action just means moving consistently and persistently towards a goal regardless of the obstacles that get in the way. Nobody will mistake a comedy like “Little Miss Sunshine” for an action thriller, yet the characters are constantly overcoming obstacles and moving closer to their final goal of getting Olive, the little girl, to the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant on time.
When your hero or villain doesn’t have a goal, your story will lack direction. Without a direction, there’s no reason for characters to change. The heart of all stories is conflict, and conflict implies pursuing a goal or blocking a goal while fighting against other characters.
Stories are more than just emotion. Stories need action even if that action is as simple as trying to ask a girl out for a date (“Marty”) or hiking alone across the Pacific Northwest (“Wild”).
Remember, movies are visual stories. Focus on telling your story as pictures without dialogue. Then use dialogue to fill in the gaps that pictures can’t show. In most cases, you can eliminate dialogue or trim it back and rely on images to tell your story better.
In “The Artist,” a woman falls in love with a silent movie star. When she sneaks into his dressing room, rather than state her love for him, she caresses his jacket and sticks her arm in the sleeve to make it look like his jacket is stroking her back in return. That simple image says far more than any dialogue could ever do.
Good movies rely on visual action rather than dialogue. Bad movies rely on dialogue where nothing visually exciting happens so you might as well be listening to a radio play.
Sin #7: Showing Us Nothing New
One reason why sequels (and copycat movies) fail to excite us is because they show us nothing new. “Rocky” helped define the underdog sports genre, but the excitement of “Rocky” wasn’t about the boxing but about the character striving to prove to the world that he’s not a bum or a loser.“The Karate Kid” is basically retelling the “Rocky” story but with martial arts. However, its characters have stories of their own and the entire story is well-structured. It doesn’t matter if you tell us the same story we’ve seen before. What matters is if your story tells us something we’ve never seen before.
When “Silence of the Lambs” came out, Hollywood produced a rash of good cop chasing a serial killer stories that lacked appeal simply because they repeated the elements of “Silence of the Lambs” but without unique characters of their own. Instead these copycat stories simply retold the familiar story without adding anything new. Why bother watching a copycat movie when you can just see the original one that sparked everyone’s interest instead?
Ultimately, there are no new stories to tell. However, there are new ways of telling the same stories. Every romantic comedy follows the same structure of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. What’s new is how the story plays out with its own unique set of characters and circumstances.
In “The Proposal,” the hero is a woman about to be deported unless she can marry an American, so she concocts a story that she’s getting married to her assistant. The story isn’t about the hero finding love so much as it’s how she finds love.
In “Sleepless in Seattle,” the hero is a man living in Seattle while a woman in Baltimore falls in love with him. Once again, the story isn’t about the hero falling in love with the woman, but how these two people can possibly meet when they’re separated on opposite ends of the country.
Every story is less about having an original plot and more about how it tells the story based on that familiar plot. “Jaws” is about a shark attacking people. “Alien” is about an alien monster attacking people. Just change the setting but the basic story is the same. What’s different is how each story’s unique characters find a solution to their problems. What’s far less important is the actual plot itself, which is about a monster terrorizing people. That plot has been around since “Frankenstein.”
Bad movies copy better movies, but they’re like a bad photocopy of an original picture. Don’t slavishly imitate a better story. Feel free to borrow plots, but create your own unique characters and situations to make your story unique and memorable.
Sin #8: No Horrible Consequences
The villain’s goal is crucial is defining a story because if the villain has a weak goal, the overall story will have a weak ending. Every villain’s goal needs to create Horrible Consequences that we don’t want to see occur.
In “Under Siege,” the Horrible Consequence is that Hawaii could be blown up by nuclear missiles fired by the villain. We don’t want to see that because then the villain will win.
In “Star Wars,” the Death Star will blow up the rebel base. We’ve already seen the Death Star blow up Princess Leia’s planet, so we don’t want to see another planet get wiped out in an instant.
If there’s no Horrible Consequences if the villain achieves his or her goal, then there’s no reason for the hero to struggle to stop the villain. Consequently, there’s no conflict or interest either.
The Horrible Consequences need to matter to the characters in the story. In “The Penguins of Madagascar,” the villain plans to turn all the penguins into hideous mutants so people won’t like them any more. In our own world, that’s not a Horrible Consequence, but to the penguins in the story, that’s a Horrible Consequence.
Sin #9: Setups But No Payoffs
Everything introduced in a story must pay off somehow. When John McClane first learns about scrunching his bare feet in the carpet with his toes from a fellow passenger, this seems like an interesting but trivial incident.
Yet later when John McClane tries this at his wife’s Christmas party, it causes him to escape bare foot when the terrorists take over the party. Later he’s crippled when Hans shoots out the glass to wound him
Another element of foreshadowing occurs when John McClane gets mad at his wife for using her maiden name. That minor incident pays off later then Hans the villain doesn’t recognize her maiden name connecting her as John McClane’s wife.
If you watch bad movies, they’ll be loaded with plenty of setups but no payoffs for those setups. The end result is a collection of information that serves no point in the rest of the story. Watch “Prometheus” (the prequel to “Alien”) to see lots of questions raised but never answered.
When you raise questions but never answer them, that creates an incomplete story. When you plant setups but never pay them off, that creates an incomplete story. Incomplete stories may grab our attention, but until we see the payoff, the story remains empty.
Imagine if in “Star Wars” Obi-wan kept teaching Luke about the Force. Then when Obi-wan dies, we never hear about the Force ever again. Our reaction would be to wonder why bother bringing up the point of the Force if it’s never used?
That’s exactly what makes bad movies so awful. They raise our expectations but never fulfill them.
Sin #10: No Suspense
You can create suspense in three ways:
- The audience knows something that a character doesn’t
- One character knows something and will use this information to confront another character
- The characters know something that the audience doesn’t
The easiest way to create suspense is through anticipation. That’s when the audience knows something that the character doesn’t, or when one character knows something that will be used to confront another character.
The opening scene in “Pulp Fiction” shows us a couple robbing a coffee shop. Then the end of the movie shows the main characters going to eat in that same coffee shop where the couple is plotting their robbery.
We already know that the couple plans to rob the coffee shop, but the two main characters do not. Now we’re left in suspense waiting for the characters to react to what we already know will happen.
Here’s how to drain this scene of all suspense. Show the main characters walking into coffee shop with a couple about to rob it. As the main characters order breakfast, the audience won’t know what’s going on, so they won’t understand or care about the scene until the couple actually stands up to rob the restaurant. By keeping the audience ignorant of the couple about to rob the restaurant, the scene loses all tension and suspense because now it just looks like an ordinary, boring scene from everyday life.
When one character knows something and moves to confront another character, we watch to see what happens. In “School of Rock,” we know that the hero isn’t really a teacher, but nobody else knows that. What will happen when others find out that the hero has been faking his teaching credentials all this time? That create suspense because we want to find out what will happen.
If characters have nothing to hide from each other, there’s no suspense when they reveal their secrets because they have none. A story without secrets or where all the characters know the same information as everyone else creates no suspense whatsoever. Hence such stories are boring.
Finally there are times when characters know something that the audience does not. Instead, we get little clues of what the character knows but these clues keep us intrigued as we try to figure out what’s going on.
In “The Sixth Sense,” the hero is a ghost. Throughout the movie we get clues that he’s not real so these clues intrigue us and make us want to know what they mean, creating suspense. When the story finally reveals their true meaning, that creates a huge emotional impact as we finally understand the meaning of those earlier clues that kept popping up for no apparent reason. When we know the reason, we’re emotionally satisfied.
Bad movies have too many scenes where there’s no suspense. Two people meet, chat, and walk away with no threat, conflict, or interest of any kind. If any part of your screenplay lacks suspense, delete it. Great movies have lean, tightly structured stories. Bad movies have flabby, poorly structured stories.
Watch a great movie like “Jaws” and then watch any of its sequels (especially the truly awful “Jaws 4: the Revenge” or “Jaws 3D”). All of the “Jaws” movies have the same plot, but they tell wildly different stories.
By studying great movies and their usually much poorer sequels, you can see how the same plot and characters rarely equal a better movie. Bad sequels likely violate one or more of the sins listed in this chapter.
Just watch a bad movie and look for which sins they commit. The more they commit, the worst the movie will be. It’s really that simple.