Every Story is About Solving One Problem

Watch your favorite movie and at its heart, it’s all about solving one problem. The beginning of the story sets up a single problem and by the end, the hero either solves that problem or fails to solve that problem.

In “Die Hard,” the single problem is for John McClane to get back with his wife. By the end, he succeeds in getting back with his wife. In between, the terrorists are a threat not just because they’re trying to kill him, but because they threaten to keep him from getting back with his wife.

The terrorists threaten to keep John McClane from achieving his goal of getting back with his wife in two ways:

  • By killing John McClane
  • By killing Holly, his wife

Every scene and every character either helps John McClane in his goal or hinders him.

In “The Invisible Man,” the hero’s single problem is to get away from her abusive, domineering husband. By the end, she succeeds in finally getting away from this man. In between, this man has discovered how to make himself invisible so he can secretly taunt and torment her no matter where she goes.

The only way the hero can succeed in getting away from this man is by either killing herself or by killing him. Everything in the story pushes her into despair by cutting off support from her friends and forcing her to accept domination from her husband.

Every story is simply one problem and every scene and character either pushes the hero closer to the goal or pushes the hero further away from that goal. Anything that doesn’t either support or hinder that goal is irrelevant.

Watch a bad movie and you’ll notice that it has pointless scenes that make no sense because they have no relevance to the main problem the hero is trying to solve from start to finish.

In a bad movie like “Mortal Engines,” the hero has no problem to solve so the story flounders from one scene to another with pointless characters popping up long enough to help or cause problems, and then go away, which creates a meaningless, chaotic story.

Before you start writing a screenplay, boil down your story into a simple problem and solution like this:

  • In “Star Wars,” the hero wants to live an adventure.
  • By the end, he’s saved a princess and saved the galaxy, so he finally had his adventure

Start a story with a problem and then everything in that story must push the hero close or further away from solving that problem. Then in the end, the hero either solves that problem or fails to solve that problem for good.

That’s the basic structure of every story, and the basic structure that Hollywood often fails to understand time and time again. (“Cats”, “Mortal Engines,” etc.)

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