When James Cameron was filming “Titanic,” a friend of mine worked as an extra, playing one of the corpses floating in the water at the end. As an extra, my friend said the general mood on the set was that the film was going to fail because everyone already knew how it was going to end because the Titanic sinks. Once people know the ending, how could they care about the story?
The reason why “Titanic” didn’t fail is because the plot isn’t that important compared to the emotional experience the story delivers.
Why do people watch movies like “Star Wars” or “Forrest Gump” over and over again even though they’ve seen the movie already? The answer isn’t because they don’t know the ending (they do), but because they want to experience the emotional experience of the story all over again.
When screenwriters come up with a story, they often focus solely on the plot and think if they come up with a clever plot, their screenplay will succeed. Sometimes that might happen, but unless the clever plot also contains an emotional experience, all the plot twists in the world can’t help.
A story is really about the emotional changes the hero goes through and how the audience can relate to that hero. The reason why foreign films generally do poorly in other countries is because people in one culture can’t emotionally relate to the problems posed by a foreign movie.
“The Breadwinner” is an animated film about a girl in Afghanistan who must deal with living under control of the Taliban that forbids girls from doing almost everything. While Americans can intellectually understand a world where women are second-class citizens, under the domination of men, it’s much harder to understand this problem emotionally because most American woman do not chafe under similar circumstances. As a result, it’s hard for Western audiences to emotionally relate to the story told in “The Breadwinner.”
One reason why action films and romance films do much better worldwide is because everyone can relate to revenge and anger (action movies) and also the desire to find love (romance). Even if you’re not Asian, you can understand the desire to find true love in “Crazy Rich Asians.” Even if you’re not a soldier, you can understand the desire to survive in “Saving Private Ryan.”
Ultimately, every good story is about an emotional experience such as finding love (“Sleepless in Seattle”), learning to trust yourself (“Back to the Future”), overcoming tremendous odds to prove yourself (“Rocky”), surviving (“127 Hours”), or getting revenge (“Kill Bill”).
Think of what emotions a cave man would understand and that’s the emotional underpinnings of a great story. Now the hard part is translating that into a compelling screenplay, but once you know your emotional foundation, you’re well on your way to writing a great story in a great screenplay.