The next time you get lost in a shopping mall, take a moment and realize that if you don’t know where you are, you also have no idea how to get where you want to go. That’s why you need a map to orient yourself. Stories are no different.
At all times, stories must make sure the audience knows not only what’s going on but where the characters are and where they want to go. If you don’t know what’s going on, where characters are, or (most importantly) where they want to go, you won’t be engaged in the story.
In the latest “Star Wars” movies, all I know about the three main characters is this. The black guy was a storm trooper who defected. What he wants and where he wants to go remains a mystery to me.
There’s an X-wing pilot who seems to have no goal. He just seems to be hanging around.
Rey, the hero, used to be a poor girl until she discovered the Force. What she wants and why isn’t clear to me. Because I have no clear or strong feeling towards any of the three main characters, the latest “Star Wars” trilogy comes across as nothing but special effects and mindless action.
In “Cats,” the hero just seems to be thrown from one situation to another with no clear goal or reason. If you simply rearranged the settings, the story wouldn’t suffer, which is one reason why “Cats” is such a weak story.
Strong stories tell us what the hero wants, where they want to go, and where they are right now so we know how far they need to go to get their goal. In “1917,” the story constantly reminds the audience where the hero is and how far he has to go until the next milestone. We’re also constantly reminded that the hero needs to get to a British army unit before dawn so there’s a time deadline.
To clearly orientate your audience, your story must define:
- Where the hero is right now
- Where the hero wants to go
- How much time is left to achieve the goal
A time deadline forces the hero to keep moving and increases suspense because every obstacle not only threatens to stop the hero, but kills time to make the hero’s task much harder.
Without a time deadline, such as in “Cats,” there’s no sense of direction or urgency. Instead, we’re just left with a bunch of singing and dancing in scenes that don’t steadily move the hero closer to a goal.
So make sure your audience knows what the hero wants (to get back to the future in “Back to the Future”), where the hero is at (trying to get his time machine near the wire where lightning will strike), and what the deadline might be (the exact moment lightning strikes).
If you fail to make your hero’s goal clear, you risk winding up with a muddled story like “Cats.”