What makes a great story? Some stories lack structure, others lack a compelling plot. Still others get sunk by poor acting or editing where the story no longer makes sense. However, what really separates a great story from a good one is emotion.
Think of a great movie that has withstood the test of time such as “Citizen Kane,” “Casablanca” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Watching any of these films leaves you with an emotional high whether the ending is up (“It’s a Wonderful Like” or down (”Citizen Kane”). Whatever the story, the story moved you in some way.
That’s the key to a great story. A merely good story can be well-structured, but it doesn’t move an audience. An example of this might be “The Soloist,” which was based on a true story about a Los Angeles Times journalist who befriends a homeless man who turns out to be a genius with the violin.
When “The Soloist” first came out, there was talk of Oscars and awards. After the movie appeared, it got okay reviews and did just okay at the box office, but nowhere near what studio executives initially thought the film would do. Instead of Oscar nominations, “The Soloist” simply sank into the background and disappeared.
It’s not a bad movie, but it’s also not a great one. It’s well-acted and structurally sound, but just like most houses are structurally sound, few houses are works of art.
The problem with “The Soloist” is that it tells a compelling story, but there’s little emotion behind the characters or our participation as an audience. We’re just watching events unfold in front of us without feeling drawn in. I seriously doubt anyone walked away from seeing “The Soloist” and thought, “Wow! That was a great movie!”
Most likely, everyone left the theater thinking, “That wasn’t bad, but nothing to talk about.”
The idea of a journalist trying to save a homeless man who’s a musical prodigy is interesting, but it doesn’t draw in the audience with a compelling emotion. To succeed, a great movie needs to make us identify with the main character and fantasize that we, as the audience, are the main character and the events we’re witnessing are our experiences too.
Think of “Rocky.” Everyone, even people who don’t like boxing, can fantasize about being an underdog and fighting for a championship. In “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” we can all fantasize about doing daring deeds in exotic places, living incredible adventures. Since we don’t do that in our normal life, it’s fun to fantasize that we are the main character.
“Saving Private Ryan” draws us in as a war picture because we can imagine how we might react in a real war. “Star Wars” plays to our fantasy of rescuing a princess and saving the world just like “Independence Day.”
Now let’s go back to “The Soloist.” What’s the underlying emotion? Does anyone fantasize about rescuing a homeless man? That by itself isn’t the problem, but where’s the emotion behind the main character? In other words, what compels the hero to rescue the homeless man?
If it was pity or guilt or anything, we might be drawn into the story more. Instead, “The Soloist” doesn’t draw us in with a universal emotion so we’re an audience on the outside looking in through a plate glass window, detached from the story. No matter how well structured the story may be, it leaves us distant and cold so we shrug our shoulders at the end and just walk away from an okay movie that could have been great.
When you create your own story, look for the emotional bond that your hero can exhibit to capture the audience. “Thelma and Louise” can even capture men as they cheer for these two women to overcome their problems. Most men will never understand the frustration and restrictions of being a woman, but they can understand the frustration and limitations in their own lives.
Few people can imagine themselves taking out terrorists in a skyscraper like “Die Hard,” but everyone can fantasize about being the hero and saving the day. That’s the secret behind James Bond movies and superhero movies like Batman or Iron Man. Present a hero that the audience can bond with through a strong emotion, and now the movie is less of a story and more of an experience. When you can achieve that bond with your audience, you’re on your way towards telling a great story.