The Big Picture

Every great movie focuses on a single theme. Every bad movie creates so many loose ends that nothing seems organized, coherent, or relevant. So the secret to writing a great screenplay is to focus on a single theme.

Every movie is about one thing. In “A Clockwork Orange,” the theme is the power of choice to choose good over bad. Without that choice, there can be no true good and every scene focuses on that theme. Of course, stories don’t have to tackle such lofty themes as good and evil. Sometimes a good theme is simply a simple, but easily understood emotion.

In “Die Hard,” Bruce Willis has only one goal and that’s to get back with his wife. Before the terrorists even arrive, Bruce Willis is struggling to win back his wife. The terrorists simply compound his problem.

That’s the secret to creating a focused screenplay. Give your hero a simple, easy goal and everything else will test your hero and block his path to success. In “Die Hard,” the terrorists are simply the worst thing that could happen. If you were trying to win back your wife, what could be worse than the danger of having terrorists kill her?

In your own screenplays, identify the main goal of your hero. Make sure this goal is simple, easy to understand, and emotional. Everyone can understand the feeling of wanting to win the love of another person like in “Die Hard.” Your hero’s goal is always simple. The complications you throw at the problem simply make it seem harder and more complicated than it really is.

First, identify a simple goal for your hero. Second, define what’s the worst that can happen if your hero fails. In “Die Hard,” take away the terrorists and the worst that can happen isn’t that Bruce Willis won’t win back his wife, but that he’ll lose his chance to win back his wife. Nothing defines failure faster than death. If his wife dies, then there’s no possible way Bruce Willis can ever win back his wife’s love. Now that’s a worse-case scenario.

After you’ve defined the worse-case scenario for your hero’s goal, now is the time to think about how your story will block and frustrate your hero. In “Die Hard,” the terrorists exist to block the hero, but take away the terrorists and the worse-case scenario could be anything that threatens to take away Bruce Willis’s chance at winning back his wife. Perhaps instead of terrorists, it could have been a disaster of some sort (think “The Poseidon Adventure” or  any of the “Airport” movies). Maybe it could be another man (another lover or a serial killer, either one could possibly take away Bruce Willis’s wife forever, although a serial killer would do it more effectively, but another lover would make that defeat more painful).

The point is that most screenwriters rush into creating their story without thinking of their hero’s overall goal and identifying the worse-case scenario. As a result, their story appears weak because the hero’s goal is never seriously threatened. In “Night at the Museum 2,” the hero doesn’t really have a defined goal with a worse-case scenario defined. As a result, there’s no sense of urgency or seriousness driving the story forward. Without a compelling goal that the hero is striving towards, the story bogs down no matter how many special effects the producers may layer on to keep an audience interested with explosions and car crashes.

For a non-movie example, read any novel by Michael Crichton (writer of “Jurassic Park”) or Dan Brown (author of “The Da Vinci Code”). Whatever flaws these stories may possess, they never lack drama, suspense, and cliff hangers.

When writing your own screenplay, clearly identify your hero’s goal and the worse-case scenario. Then find a way to make that worse-case scenario a reality, and that’s how you identify the true villain of your story.

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