Combining the What with the Why to Create a Complete Story

Here’s what most novices do wrong. They come up with a great idea and then they start writing their screenplay. About halfway through, they run out of ideas and they either abandon their idea or create a series of unconnected scenes to finish the story off in a haphazard manner that feels forced and has little connection to then beginning scenes. The problem is that a great story idea is never enough.

Watch any bad movie and you can see that it has a good if not great idea. Where bad movies fail is that they don’t go beyond this one great idea.

One movie that got a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes is “The Layover,” which is a comedy about two women who fall for the same man on an airplane. When their plane gets stranded in a city for the night, the two women, who are best friends, compete to win his attention.

That basic idea is a good one since it describes what happens. Where it falls apart is that it fails to explain why it happens.

Why would two best friends try to sabotage their friendship for the sake of a man they just met? The story could work, but by failing to explain why the two women act this way, the movie focuses solely on their increasingly bizarre and not very humorous ways to fight each other.

Now look at much better movies that grab your attention with an intriguing premise (what) and then follows it up by explaining why. Nicholas Cage starred in an odd comedy horror movie called “Willy’s Wonderland,” which is about animatronic robots in a Chuck E. Cheese-like amusement park where the animatronic robots kill people. That’s a silly premise (what) but still kind of interesting.

[Spoiler alert]

Then when he hero is trapped inside the building and constantly defeating the animatronic robots one by one, we finally learn the why. Apparently, Willy’s Wonderland was run by a group of serial killers who lured kids and their families into their place to murder them. When the police come to arrest them, all the serial killers commit suicide through a Satanic ritual that embeds their souls in the animatronic robots so they can continue killing people.

The town makes a deal with the animatronic robots to lure strangers into the amusement park for the animatronic robots to kill so they’ll stop killing the townspeople.

Notice we start out with a What and then we learn Why. That’s how to keep a good idea going.

Another odd movie is “Lars and the Real Girl,” which is about a lonely man who orders a life-size sex doll and pretends that she’s real. That’s the premise (what). To keep this story going, the movie eventually explains the why.

Apparently the hero is traumatized from his past and is afraid of dealing with people. So he uses a sex dollars as a substitute.

Amazingly, “Lars and the Real Girl” doesn’t go for the easy, raunchy jokes but instead focuses on how the hero is using the sex doll as a way to deal with his fear of being around people. Gradually as the towns people go along with his delusion, the hero learns to re-connect with people around him until he no longer needs the sex doll any more.

So the story isn’t about a man having sex with a sex doll or being crazy pretending the sex doll is real. Instead, it’s really about a man learning to connect with people again without fear. That’s the story’s why and it gives a reason to the story’s what.

For your own screenplays, you know it’s easy to come up with a compelling idea (what). Now the hard part is to finish your story by explaining the why. What is your story really about? That’s he heart of any story and that’s what bad movies forget and good movies include.

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