The biggest mistake novice writers make is they try to tell a story. That usually means they dump globs of information on the audience, characters speak unnaturally, and there’s little conflict or action because everyone is too busy providing exposition over and over again.
Instead of trying to tell a story, writers should focus on teaching the hero a lesson, whatever that lesson might be. Now instead of focusing on dumping exposition on the audience, writers can focus on showing their hero how to change.
Having the hero change into a better person is the underlying foundation of nearly all good stories. Occasionally, stories can get away with lots of action (think “Mission Impossible” or “Indiana Jones”) but even then, constant action without meaning becomes boring. That’s why all action should teach the hero a lesson.
Look at two vastly different movies, “The Black Phone” and “No Hard Feelings.” “The Black Phone” is about a kid who gets kidnapped by a serial killer where a black phone in the basement lets him talk to the past victims of this serial killer. “No Hard Feelings” is a raunchy sex comedy that focuses on a woman who agrees to have sex with a young man in exchange for a car.
Despite two vastly different premises, both stories are about the plot of the story forcing the hero to change into a better person. In “The Black Phone,” the hero gets bullied at school and gets abused by his alcoholic father at home. He needs to learn to stand up for himself but he’ll never do that until a serial killer abducts him. Now the hero has no choice but to learn how to become a better person or else the serial killer will murder him.
In “No Hard Feelings,” the hero abandons people and uses them for her own short-term benefit, which exactly mimics her father who refuses to acknowledge her or talk to her in any way. The hero longs to get in touch with her father that she never knew, but her father abandoned her and the hero’s mother because he already had a wife and family elsewhere.
He had an affair with the hero’s mother and when the hero was born, the father simply bought the mother a nice house as a way to keep her happy and keep her out of the father’s real life. Not surprisingly, the hero feels abandoned by her father, but in turn, she treats men the same way.
When the hero’s car gets repossessed and she’s in danger of losing the house because she can’t afford the taxes, she needs a car. That’s when she learns of an over-protective couple willing to hire a woman to help get their son out of his social isolation. In the process of trying to have sex with this young man, the hero gradually learns to become friends with him.
In both “The Black Phone” and “No Hard Feelings,” all obstacles work to force the hero to become a better person. If a serial killer didn’t kidnap him, the hero in “The Black Phone” would never be forced to stand up for himself. If the hero wasn’t in danger of losing her home in “No Hard Feelings,” she would never be forced to grow up, learn to treat others better, and move on with her life.
Villains and obstacles don’t exist just to get in the way of the hero. Instead, every villain and obstacle exists solely to force the hero to change. If any obstacle or action fails to force the hero to change, it doesn’t belong. Ultimately, your villain is your hero’s best and harshest teacher.
When you think of setbacks and villains as malicious teachers, then their actions against the hero will feel more focused and unified. Without this focus, setbacks and actions from the villain will just seem arbitrary and random.
Without a villain and obstacles, your hero literally cannot change and grow into a better person. So think of what lesson your hero needs to learn and make your villain create those harsh lessons for your hero. This will create far more engaging and dynamic scenes than the traditional information dump that most writers create when writing a screenplay.