One Goal, One Problem

It’s easy to make a bad movie. All you need to do is bombard the audience with multiple stories. conversely, the best way to make a good movie is to create a single hero pursuing a single goal from start to finish.

When a movie fails to create a single goal and pursue that one goal to the end, you wind up with a confusion of stories that never seem to work together, usually because the screenplay as written by several people and they lacked a coherent, overall vision for the story with so many people tearing it apart and putting it back together again.

Watch movies like “Room,” “The Green Room,” or “10 Cloverfield Lane” and you’ll see that the hero’s goal from start to finish is simple: escape. The hero is trapped somewhere and must get out. Everything in the story contributes to that one goal that’s never resolved until the very end.

In “10 Cloverfield Lane,” the hero find herself chained to a post inside a concrete room. She initially tries to attack the man who imprisoned her until she learns that there’s another man living in the underground shelter and that the man she thought was imprisoning her claims to have saved her life. She makes one more escape attempt and nearly gets to the front door when she spots another woman screaming to get into the shelter. That’s when the hero realizes that the man imprisoning her was actually telling the truth. Something has gone horribly wrong outside.

Although her initial goal of escaping subsides, a problem with the air filtration system forces her to climb through the air ducts and turn the filtration system back on again. That’s when she sees the word “HELP” scrawled on the inside of a glass looking out on the rest of the world. Later the hero discovers that the man imprisoning her had kidnapped a local girl and claimed she was his daughter. Despite realizing that there is a problem outside, the hero decides to risk escaping anyway.

Now the story goes back to the original goal of getting out. The hero plots to make a gas mask and protective suit and escape. Naturally the villain discovers the plot and confronts her, forcing a battle until the hero finally achieves her goal, which is to escape.

The goal is clear from start to finish: the hero must find a way to get out and must constantly work towards that goal.

Bad movies dilute the story. In “The 5th Wave,” the hero’s goal is to keep her younger brother safe. That’s her main goal, yet “The 5th Wave” dilutes this story by showing the experiences her younger brother goes through after being drafted by the military. In a novel, this might work but in a movie, it takes attention away from the hero. To make this subplot work, the younger brother’s story should have paralleled the hero’s where the younger brother is trying to escape. Instead, the younger brother simply is a bystander and the focus of attention rests on an older boy who the hero had a crush on.

In “Finding Nemo,” there are two stories. First, the hero is trying to find his son, Nemo, who has been captured by a scuba diver. Second, Nemo is trying to escape the aquarium with the help of the other fish. Because both characters are active and working towards the same goal, the two subplots work together.

In “The 5th Wave,” the main story shows the hero trying to save her brother but the subplot shows the brother simply being a passive observer while the hero’s teenage crush does all the active decisions in trying to escape from the military and later going back to help save the hero’s little brother. The big problem here is that a new character, the hero’s teenage crush from high school, is now the center of attention.

Ideally, your screenplay should give a hero a single goal to pursue from start to finish like “10 Cloverfield Lane.” If your screenplay needs to have a major subplot, that subplot must parallel the main story with a character directly related to the hero’s goal somehow.

More importantly, the villain must also be pursuing a single goal from start to finish. In “10 Cloverfield Lane,” the villain’s goal is to keep the hero trapped in the shelter and the hero’s goal is to get out of the shelter. The villain constantly threatens the hero from start to finish, opposing her attempts to escape.

In “The 5th Wave,” the villain are faceless aliens who threaten the hero’s world. Later the villain appears in the form of a military commander, but because he hasn’t threatened the hero from the beginning, his appearance feels contrived and forced. Because he doesn’t constantly threaten the hero, the villain in “The 5th Wave” is forgettable.

So your hero needs to pursue a single goal and your villain also needs to pursue a goal directly opposing the hero’s goal. This creates conflict from start to finish. In “10 Cloverfield Lane,” the hero wants to escape and the villain wants to keep her there. Notice those goals directly oppose each other, creating inevitable conflict? In “The 5th Wave,” the hero wants to save her younger brother and the villain wants to destroy the world. Notice those goals don’t directly oppose each other, so the conflict is forced and too often simply ignored altogether?

Your hero and villain both need a goal and they both need to keep pursuing that goal until the very end when only one of them can win. That’s the essence of any story. All good movies have this conflict and single goal. Bad movies are bad because they ignore this basic foundation of story structure.

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