Stories Are All About Solving Problems

What makes a bad movie? How about the lack of problems for the hero to solve?

When most people think about their favorite movies, they remember the big scenes like the Death Star blowing up, the revelation that Bruce Willis is really dead (The Sixth Sense), or the couple finally able to fall in love (Grease and every romantic comedy in history).

What most people don’t realize is that movies aren’t just big scenes, but a series of problems that the hero needs to solve along the way of solving the big problem that everyone remembers.

In “Star Wars,” everyone remembers Luke trying to blow up the Death Star, but there were plenty of little problems that Luke had to overcome along the way. Without those little problems, the movie would have dragged and seemed forced and meaningless. With these little problems, the movie holds our interest by making us wonder, “Will the hero solve that problem?” The minute that hero solves one problem, another one pops up, and then another. A movie is just a series of related problems strung together that pulls your attention along until the final climax.

Let’s go back to the beginning of Star Wars. Luke’s first problem is that he wants to get out of the farm and see the world, but his aunt and uncle are against it. Next, Luke’s uncle gets C3PO and R2D2 to help around the farm. After taking off the restraining bolt from R2D2, Luke inadvertently gives R2D2 a chance to escape, which he does.

Now Luke’s next problem is to find R2D2. While looking for him, Luke runs into the sand people and manages to survive their attack until Old Ben comes to save him. R2D2’s message convinces Ben to leave to save the good guys, but Luke refuses to go.

After seeing the sand people’s vehicle shot apart, Luke has another problem; trying to get back to his aunt and uncle before the storm troopers can get there, but it’s too late. Now he has no choice but to go with Ben.

It’s these little problems, strung together, that keep us riveted to our seats. Think of a bad movie where the characters don’t have a goal. When this occurs, the audience is left fidgeting and wondering, “What’s happening?” It’s easy to prevent this problem by simply throwing problems at the hero.

Of course, you just don’t want to throw unrelated problems at the hero or else you’ll just get a confused mess. Every problem must be related to the main problem. In “Star Wars,” Luke’s emotional problem is to discover the world outside of the farm. He solves this emotional problem by overcoming the physical problem of blowing up the Death Star.

In “Die Hard,” Bruce Willis’s problem is overcoming fear and getting back with his wife. He overcomes the emotion of fear by taking out terrorists and ultimately getting back with his wife.

Problems form the heart of every story. First, make sure everything causes problems for your hero. Second, make sure those problems are related somehow to hero’s overall problem.

Think of those really bad karate movies where the hero is constantly attacked for no apparent reason. That’s always a problem, but unless those attacks are related to the main story, they’re just action for the sake of action. Meaningless action is almost as bad as no action.

Every scene in your movie must either introduce a problem, show the hero trying to solve a problem, or show the hero actually solving the problem. Unless your scenes show one of those three items, you’ll just have a flat, boring, dull scene that serves no purpose.

One classic scene is Jack Nicholson in “Five Easy Pieces” where he’s trying to order toast from a surly waitress, who refuses to let him order anything not on the menu. So Jack Nicholson orders a chicken sandwich without the mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, or chicken so he winds up with just the toast.

This scene is short and simple, but it illustrates the principle that every scene must have conflict and problem solving at its core. You keep an audience’s attention by letting them watch the hero solve a problem. You lose an audience when you fail to show the hero dealing with problems.

Every scene (like every movie) needs a hero, a villain, and a problem that causes conflict. Problems form the heart of story-telling, so make sure your screenplay includes plenty of problems that are related, and you’ll be on your way to writing a good movie.

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