Watch a bad movie and no matter how many car crashes or explosions you see, the movie can still be boring. Compare the chase scene of “Terminator 3” with a similar chase scene in “Terminator 2.” In “Terminator 3,” the action is action for the sake of action. The hero just seems to be running around with the bad Terminator chasing him with no sense of direction. As a result, the action becomes boring.
What drags a story down is often the lack of causality between scenes. In “Star Wars,” Luke is trying to reach Princes Leia’s planet. Then he gets there but the Death Star has blown it up and captures the Millennium Falcon, trapping Luke on the Death Star. Now Obi-wan has to find a way to disable the tractor beam while Luke rescues Princess Leia. Then Luke gets trapped by stormtroopers so he has to hide in a garbage dump.
Can you see how every scene something happens, but the next scene is a direct result of what happened in the previous scene? That’s because each scene causes the next scene to appear because no other scene would make sense. Imagine if Luke arrives at Princess Leia’s planet but gets captured by the Death Star instead. Now instead of trying to escape from the Death Star, Luke decides to become a janitor on the Death Star and live happily ever after. Boring, right? Because Luke’s original goal of finding out the secret message in R2D2 never gets fulfilled. Once you start your story rolling with an initial, inciting incident, it has to keep rolling in that direction.
In “Star Wars,” the story starts out with Darth Vader trying to get back the stolen Death Star plans so he can wipe out the rebel base. In “Terminator,” the Terminator arrives to kill the mother of the resistance leader, John Connor. In “Finding Nemo,” Marlin the father wants nothing more than to protect his only son, Marlin and rescue him when a diver takes him away. Every story is really just focused on one goal, but everything around that story revolves around solving that one specific goal.
In “Die Hard,” the hero just wants to get back with his wife. Then the terrorists show up and the story really isn’t about defeating the terrorists, but in getting back with his wife. To do that, he has to defeat the terrorists. Every movie is about one goal with lots of little goals in between that support the real goal.
In “Legally Blonde,” the goal may seem like the hero wants to win back her boyfriend, but the real story is that she needs to recognize she’s more than just a dumb blonde and really is someone who can be important. In “WALL-E,” the hero’s goal is to find love, and he can only do that by helping save the human race in the process. Most action in movies are a side effect of the hero pursuing his real goal.
So focus on what’s your hero’s real goal, and then fill it with lots of interesting obstacles that get in the way of that real goal. All those lousy “Die Hard” sequels and “Die Hard” copycat movies sucked because they made the real story fighting the army of bad guys and nothing more. The real goal should be something that changes the hero while the action is what the hero has to go through to change and reach his goal. Just parading a bunch of action scenes is pointless if each scene doesn’t directly cause the next scene to occur.
Every scene is nothing more than a step by step process towards the hero’s real goal, and each scene occurs precisely because of what happened in the previous scene. Disconnect the causality between scenes and you basically kill the story flow and risk losing your audience’s interest at the same time.
Think of scenes like dominoes. If you set up dominoes and knock them over, each one knocks over the next one to create a complete process from start to end. That’s how a story should flow. Something starts the story off and everything in between is directly related to getting you to the end. Causality is the glue that ties your scenes together. If you look at early drafts of famous movies, you can see how they cut scenes that didn’t keep thue hero moving one step closer to the final goal, and that\’s the type of editing you need to do before you turn your script in to be read by others.