The three layers of a story are:
- The idea
- The action
- The purpose
Look at every bad movie ever made and you can see that it had the nugget of a good idea buried inside. “Nine Lives” is about a man who finds himself trapped inside of a cat’s body. ” “Don’t Breathe 2” is about a blind man trying to defend a little girl from home intruders. “Stuber” is about a policeman who teams up with an Uber driver to fight crime.
If an idea isn’t appealing, the story won’t be made. That’s why you have to look at your idea to see if it’s appealing or not. Far too many novices literally have no idea what their story is about. They just start writing and if they even complete their screenplay, it will likely be a jumbled mess. So start with an intriguing idea. If that idea doesn’t grab someone’s attention, your story risks going nowhere no matter how well written it might be.
Once you have an intriguing idea, the next step is to put it into action. In other words, how do you take a good idea and turn it into a good story? This is where bad movies fall apart. They all have intriguing ideas but they fail to tell a coherent, interesting story that fully matches that initial great idea.
The third layer is the story’s purpose. What is the point of the story?
Far too often, a movie will have an intriguing idea and decent action to match that idea, but fail to define a purpose. When this happens, you simply wind up with a mediocre movie like “Nine Lives,” “Don’t Breathe 2,” or “Stuber.”
“Stuber” has the intriguing idea of a policeman forced to team up with an Uber driver. The execution of this idea is fairly mundane, but when you get to the end of the story, you realize it has no purpose. After spending nearly two hours watching a policeman team up with an Uber driver to fight crime, how does this make you feel at the end? The answer is that the story has no purpose, so the great idea and okay action to support that idea makes “Stuber” a mediocre movie.
Without an idea, a movie will never get made. With a great idea and poor action, you’ll wind up with a bad movie. With a great idea, decent action, but no purpose, you’ll wind up with a mediocre movie. Only when you have a great idea combined with supporting action that serves a purpose will you have a great movie and that’s what you want to strive for at all times.
What’s the purpose of “Stuber”? “Nine Lives”? “Don’t Breathe 2”?
Now compare this with “Titanic”, which is all about making the most of your life and not letting yourself be trapped. People watch “Titanic” over and over again, not because they want to see an ocean liner sink, but because they want to re-experience the emotion of feeling like their own life is in their hands and they too can choose the life they want for themselves, just like Rose in “Titanic.”
What’s the purpose of “Star Wars?” The Force gives people hope that they too can be someone greater than they think. Luke started out thinking he was just a farm boy but by the end, he learned that he could have a great adventure, save a princess, and defeat a threat to freedom in the galaxy. All because Luke learned to trust himself and that’s the purpose of “Star Wars.”
Mediocre movies lack this purpose and that’s why they’re forgettable. Great movies make this purpose clear and that’s why they’re classics that people love decades later.
“Thelma and Louise” makes women feel empowered and shows women that they can still find freedom in a male-dominated world. Even men can appreciate this movie because it shows that you can define your own life (just like “Titanic”).
Remember, people go to movies for wish fulfillment. They want to go on an adventure with the hero and learn an important life lesson in the process.
When coming up with a story, don’t just focus on the idea and the action to tell that story. Go one layer deeper and define your purpose for telling that story. Then infuse your story’s purpose in every scene from start to finish. That’s the recipe for a great movie.