Here’s the simplest type of story. A good guy is trying to achieve a goal and a purely evil guy is trying to stop him. That’s the basic plot of every bad James Bond movie and that creates a superficial story that relies on action, special effects, car crashes, and sex to make it even mildly interesting.
While every story needs an antagonist, often times the real antagonist isn’t a purely evil genius intent on destroying the world. What makes stories far more fascinating is when the hero has to battle friends and themselves.
In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the hero wants to compete in a beauty pageant. There isn’t a single evil villain trying to stop her but lots of obstacles trying to slow her down from the family van breaking down to her grandfather dying. What makes her goal harder isn’t just outside interference but her own family who are fighting each other.
Because these family members actually want the hero to succeed, they’re helping her, but because they’re also fighting each other, they’re actually hurting her chances to succeed. That makes for a far more interesting story to watch than a completely good guy battling a completely evil villain all the time.
Even worse, when the hero finally gets to the beauty pageant to compete, her own family members turn against her and try to convince her not to compete. That’s because they think she’s not good enough and they’re trying to spare her the embarrassment. So out of good intentions, they’re trying to stop her from reaching her goal, which makes for a much more interesting conflict.
The final conflict involves the little girl finally overcoming her own doubts. She’s afraid if she doesn’t win, she’ll be a loser and she doesn’t want to be a loser. So there’s an inner struggle to overcome and watching her finally overcome her fear of being a loser is the toughest conflict of all. When the hero must battle him or herself, that’s the most fascinating outcome that no amount of helicopter crashes or explosions can ever meet because inner conflict is emotional while more gunfire is not.
Good movies always have this emotional conflict. Mediocre and bad movies completely omit this emotional conflict and create black and white good and bad guys who fight like Punch and Judy puppets.
In “Lars and the Real Girl,” the battle isn’t between the hero and an evil person, but about the hero slowly learning to trust being around other people and be willing to love others and be loved in return. That’s a fascinating dilemma that another car crash can never achieve.
When writing your own screenplay, first identify the emotional, inner conflict the hero must overcome within him or herself. Then work outward to find friends and allies who can also work against the hero. Then worry about an evil villain if you even need one at all.
Most bad movies start with an evil villain and focus on external fighting that needs bigger explosions and more car crashes. That’s when you end up with completely forgettable movies that rely on a unique idea to hold an audience’s attention such as flying Nazi sharks in the movie “Sky Sharks.”
Instead, start with a conflicted hero, then add friends who get in the hero’s way and you’ll wind up with a far more emotionally engaging story than another weak James Bond type plot or another “Sky Shark” movie.