Action and Meaning — What Movies Are Really All About

What a movie is really all about isn’t what you usually notice in the ads or trailers.

The 1996 movie “Independence Day” will never be mistaken for a great movie in the same league as “Citizen Kane” or “Casablanca.” However, it’s an enjoyable B-movie that sets out to entertain and achieves that despite illogical plot points. (Does anyone really think you can infect an alien computer with a virus and take down their shields?)

Despite its silliness, the movie does highlight one aspect of movies that many screenwriters miss. A movie is more than what you see in the ads or the trailers. Ask most people what “Independence Day” is about and they’ll inevitably tell you that it’s about aliens trying to take over the planet. That’s not what the movie is about. What the movie is really about is tucked away near the beginning of the script.


Several “Pundits” sit around a MacLaughlin-type news discussion program.  The picture quality is snowy, static ridden.

PUNDIT #1 … the inexperience in public office was inevitably going to catch up with him.  He’s sacrificed his ideals for “politics as usual.”

Whitmore ties on his robe as he adjusts the picture quality.

PUNDIT #2 …I said this during the campaign. Leadership as a pilot in the Gulf War has no relationship to political leadership.  It’s a different animal…

Suddenly the channel changes.  A cartoon comes on.  Whitmore turns to his daughter who holds the remote.

“Independence Day” is really about a man (the President) trying to prove to himself and the world that he’s a true leader, and what better way for the President to do that than to lead the final aerial assault against the alien flying saucers to save the world?

Movies consist of Meaning and Action. The Action is what you see and remember about a movie, such as alien flying saucers blowing up entire cities. Meaning is what’s often hidden behind the Action. The Action simply dramatizes the Meaning. In the case of “Independence Day,” the Meaning is a President trying to prove that he’s a leader. The Action is the President battling the aliens himself.

Every great movie has Meaning and Action. “Jaws” isn’t about a man-eating shark. It’s about a sheriff trying to overcome his own fears and prove he can protect the public, and that involves battling the shark face to face. “Schindler’s List” isn’t about saving Jewish refugees from being killed. It’s about a man (Schindler) who discovers that money is less important than people.

Take away Meaning from a movie and you wind up with pointless Action as witnessed by countless of horrible sequels. “Jaws 4” took away all Meaning and made it a collection of ludicrous Action of just a shark attacking people and the people fighting back for no other reason than to fight back. Sequels strip away Meaning and replace it with more Action, and that’s why most sequels suck big time.

When creating your own screenplay, ask yourself what it’s really about. The Meaning of your script will involve a character trying to change. The Action in your script will involve showing how that character changes.

You can have the same Meaning but different Action, and you wind up with two entirely different movies. “Thelma and Louise” has little in common with “Pulp Fiction.” but they’re both about characters trying to find meaning in their lives. What makes a movie original isn’t its plot or characters, but how the Action in your movie expresses your Meaning.

If your script seems to be floundering and you don’t know what to do next, take a step back and look at what your main character’s flaw that he (or she) needs to correct in the end. Once you know the Meaning, it will be a lot easier to create the Action that dramatizes this. Without Meaning, you’ll just wind up writing a bunch of disjointed Action that will feel unsatisfying and weak. It’s possible to write movies with little Meaning and lots of Action, but who wants to write a crappy film when you can write a great one?

[xyz-ihs snippet=”Google-Horizontal-Ad”]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.