What gets a movie going and keeps it going are goals. Your hero needs a big goal that drives your story forward, but he (or she) also needs smaller goals to keep the story moving.
Think of the last bad movie you saw recently (“Jonah Hex” and The Last Airbender” come to mind). One characteristic of a bad movie is that the whole story starts to drag and you wind up checking the time rather than watch the movie. The reason why movies drag is because nothing important seems to be happening. What every story needs is a Big Problem that your hero wants to solve. This Big Problem is what drives your hero to take action.
In the Coen Brothers film “Raising Arizona,” this Big Problem is when the hero and his wife want a baby. This desire for a baby drives the whole movie forward, which causes this couple to kidnap a baby to pass off as their own.
In “WALL-E,” this Big Problem is clearly defined when WALL-E wants someone to love. In “Star Wars,” this Big Problem is clearly defined when Luke dreams of leaving his planet and having an adventure. In “The Last Airbender,” this Big Problem occurs when the hero wants, uh, what a minute. That’s the problem with bad movies like “The Last Airbender.” If the audience isn’t crystal clear what the hero wants, then the rest of the story won’t make much sense.
In every movie, the first 15-minute segment defines the hero’s Big Problem and then the last 15-minute segment shows the hero fighting a villain to solve this Big Problem.
In between this first and last segment, the hero needs additional goals as follows:
Segment 1 — The hero defines the Big Problem that the entire movie revolves around.
Segment 2 — The hero tries to integrate something new into his old life without success.
nSegment 3 — The hero pursues a small goal directly related to the forces that shoved him (or her) into a new world.
Segment 4 — The hero achieves a False Victory that appears to solve the Big Problem, but really doesn’t.
Segment 5 — The villain achieves a minor goal.
Segment 6 — The villain achieves his (or her) main goal.
Segment 7 — The hero pursues the villain.
Segment 8 — The hero confronts the villain to achieve the Big Problem first identified in Segment 1.
To see how these mini-goals work, consider the movie “WALL-E.”
Segment 1 — WALL-E wants someone to love. Not only is this goal clear, but we want him to achieve it since he seems like a good guy.
Segment 2 — WALL-E tries unsuccessfully to woo Eve, but fails.
Segment 3 — WALL-E pursues Eve until he gets her attention.
Segment 4 — WALL-E tries to woo Eve and finally gets to dance with her in outer space.
Segment 5 — Auto (the evil auto-pilot computer) steals the plant.
Segment 6 — Auto almost gets WALL-E and Eve crushed in a garbage disposal unit.
Segment 7 — WALL-E and Eve rush to place the plant into a special activator that will return the ship back to Earth.
Segment 8 — WALL-E and Eve finally make it back to Earth and find love.
Each segment represents a mini-goal with its own exposition, rising action, and climax. Because each segment has a clearly defined goal, we get captivated to see what happens next. Before the segment ends, it introduces something new that will payoff later. As soon as one segment ends, a new one immediately begins with a different goal, so once again we stay gripped in our seats, waiting to see how this new goal turns out.
Offering continuous cliff hangers keeps the audience glued to their seats, which makes the story flow, and ultimately ends with a satisfying conclusion as we wait to see if the hero will finally overcome the Big Problem.
One main goal and lots of mini-goals along the way is how any story can captivate an audience. There’s no secret. Just break yoru story into eight segments, give each segment a mini-goal, clearly define your main goal as soon as possible, and you’ve got the foundation for an interesting story. Omit this foundation of goals and you risk having a boring story no matter how visually exciting the scenes might be.
Goals and our anticipating and curiosity of whether the hero will achieve that goal is what holds us in our seats. So in your own screenplays, make sure your Big Problem for the hero is clearly defined, create mini-goals along the way, and you’ll have a strong story foundation for your screenplay.