Start with a Problem

Watch a bad movie and chances are good you’ll be bored. The reason you’re bored is because the movie doesn’t promise anything interesting and what’s interesting is conflict. The heart of any conflict is a problem.

Let’s first think of the big picture. In “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the problem begins with the inexplicable finding of 1945 World War Two airplanes from a flight that got lost over the Bermuda Triangle. That’s a pretty interesting problem, and then the rest of the movie gradually reveals the struggles to understand what’s happening, the obstacles they face, and the eventual landing of the UFO that returns the men from these missing World War Two bombers. That’s basically the whole story right there, but it begins with a problem.

Now let’s look at the smaller picture. Every sequence of scenes also begins with a problem. In an early scene, Richard Dreyfuss is arguing with his kids whether to see Pinocchio or play Goofy Golf. This is a minor problem, but it immediately grabs our interest because there’s a problem that needs to be solved, and we want to see how he solves it.

Later, the problem is that the power is going out and Richard Dreyfuss is dispatched to figure out what’s wrong. That sends him out searching for a particular road and then he encounters a UFO.

There’s a simple reason why hitting the audience with a problem right away grabs our attention. Imagine walking into a restaurant that’s empty. Not much interest there. Now as people filter in, imagine a couple arguing. As the argument gets more intense and louder, it attracts our attention.

If you were filming this scene, would you want to start with an empty restaurant and then show people showing up until the angry couple arrives? Or would it be more interesting to cut right to the angry couple arriving and getting our attention right away?

That’s what each of your sequence of scenes must do. Start off with a problem because problems are inherently interesting.

In “Star Wars,” Darth Vader’s problem is catching Princes Leia. That’s a big problem. In the middle of “Star Wars,” one sequence is when the Death Star captures the Millennium Falcon. That’s a huge problem, so everyone hides. Then they knock out the people sent to examine the ship. Finally they break the tractor beam holding the ship, then they escape. But each sequence begins with a problem

The big problems keep your story moving and the smaller problems make your sequences of scenes interesting. But it all begins with a problem. Every good movie starts with a problem and every sequence of scenes starts with a problem. Problems are what makes stories worth watching or listening to.

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