One reason why bad movies are so painful to watch is because you, as the audience, has no idea what’s going on. While there might be plenty of action taking place on the screen with explosions, gunfire, and car chases, all this action means nothing if you don’t know why anyone is doing anything. In short, you absolutely must specify the goals of your main characters so we know what they’re trying to do.
In Disney’s 1991 “Beauty and the Beast,” the first ten minutes clearly outlines the goals of all the main characters. First, we learn that the Beast needs to make a girl fall in love with him before his 21st birthday or else he’ll be trapped as a beast forever. Second, we learn that Belle wants a life beyond her provincial life. Third, we learn that Gaston is an arrogant man who wants to marry Belle.
Everything in the first ten minutes tells us everything we need to know about the story. Now the rest of the story is basically a love triangle where we get to see if the Beast will ever succeed in getting a girl to fall in love with him, whether Belle will ever escape her provincial life, and whether Gaston will ever convince Belle to marry him. Once we know what the initial goals of the main characters might be, the end simply answers all of those questions.
The Beast succeeds in breaking the spell by getting Belle to fall in love with him. Belle gets a much richer life with the prince (formerly the Beast) and escapes her provincial life. Gaston fails to convince Belle to marry him. Just examine the beginning and end of your story and you can immediately see if your story makes sense.
In “Beauty and the Beast,” the goals of the characters are clearly explained. However in many other movies, the goal of the villain is often mysterious. Yet in hindsight you can see that the villain knew exactly what his or her goal was from the very beginning.
In “Star Wars,” we have no idea why Darth Vader is trying to capture Princess Leia. Yet later we finally understand that he was trying to capture her so he could find the location of the rebel base.
In “The Matrix,” we have no idea what’s going on, but in hindsight we can understand that Agent Smith is trying to wipe out the human resistance fighters. Although we don’t initially understand the goal of the villain, it all makes sense later so the beginning logically sets up the ending.
Too often screenwriters start writing without a clear idea of the ending. As a result, they add in far too many irrelevant scenes, characters, and dialogue so their story is a mess. Then they need to delete large chunks of their screenplay to make it a coherent whole again, replacing the deleted scenes with new scenes. This constant patchwork method sometimes works but takes time. More often than not it creates an odd patchwork monster that satisfies no one with left over scenes that don’t belong together. Just look at disasters like “Jonah Hex” or “Jupiter Ascending” to see the problems of poor story structure.
Define your beginning that clarifies the goals of your main characters (hero, villain, mentor) and then define your ending that answers the initial questions raised by your beginning. Once you know both your beginning and end, it’s relatively trivial to fill in the gaps in between.