One way to learn is through experience. A faster way to learn is through somebody else’s experience. In this case, you can learn by seeing what not to do through the failures of others.
Every year, Hollywood parades out a series of movies that too often fail to live up to the promises implied in their trailers. Think “Jonah Hex,” “Clash of the Titans,” or “Grown Ups.” First of all, you’d think Hollywood would understand the importance of creating a solid story first before starting production, yet all of these movies show that Hollywood still has a “shoot first, worry about story structure” later mentality.
The most common failure of bad movies stems from the main character. First, we must sympathize with the hero, who is faced with an emotional problem. In “Die Hard,” Bruce Willis just wants to get back with his wife. In “Star Wars,” Luke just wants to explore the universe. In “The Shawshank Redemption,” the hero simply wants his freedom. There’s always a primal need driving the hero towards some emotional and satisfying goal.
In bad movies, the hero lacks such an emotional goal. In fact, the hero often has nothing but a physical goal with no emotional stake whatsoever. In a good movie, the hero is incomplete emotionally. In a bad movie, the hero doesn’t need emotions; he just needs a lot of special effects and explosions to keep the audience entertained.
It never works. Hollywood never learns.
Besides an emotional goal, a hero in a good movie needs to change. In the beginning, the hero is flawed or incomplete. By the end of the movie, the hero has learned something about himself and has become whole.
In a bad movie, the hero is already whole and doesn’t need to change. Instead, he just needs to run around acting like a bad ass, blowing up bad guys who get in his way for no apparent reason other than to get shot or blown up in more spectacular ways than before.
Once again, it never works. Once again, Hollywood never learns.
In a 2008 interview, Josh Brolin even mentioned that when he first read the script for “Jonah Hex,” he thought it was awful. Yet he signed up to star in the film anyway and made it. Guess what? If you start with an awful script, you wind up with an awful movie. Is anyone surprised at this? (Maybe Josh Brolin, but nobody else.)
A good story always starts with a flawed, incomplete and sympathetic hero. It always ends with this hero conquering a fear or obstacle and changing in the process.
If you want to avoid writing a bad screenplay, start with your story first. Then again if you want to make millions cranking out bad screenplays that get turned into awful films, just ignore story structure. It seems to work for so many writers in Hollywood.