Far too many movies focus on action, special effects, gunfire, car crashes, and stunts. This is never a formula for success (watch “Bullet Train”). At best, this will create a visually interesting story to watch and completely forget two seconds after the movie ends.
Watching someone dangling out of a speeding train is mildly interesting because you want to see if they’ll survive, but there’s little reason to care either way if they do or not. What stories really need is an emotional foundation that involves a seemingly inescapable emotional dilemma where the hero feels they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
“Top Gun: Maverick” is a perfect example of an action movie that succeeds not because of the action, but because of the underlying emotional story behind the action.
The hero (Maverick) has a problem. He blocked the son (Rooster) of his dead navigator from becoming a pilot, but he did it to fulfill a promise he made to the mother. So the emotional dilemma looks like this:
- If he keeps Rooster from the mission, Rooster will hate him, believing Maverick is unfairly singling him out for failure.
- If he lets Rooster join the mission, he risks getting him killed.
Neither option is desirable. Hence, Maverick is stuck in an emotional dilemma, and seeing how Maverick can resolve this emotional dilemma is what makes all the action worth watching.
When writing your own screenplay, give your hero an emotional dilemma where the two choices are both unsatisfactory. In “Die Hard,” John McClane’s emotional dilemma is to do nothing and risk having the terrorists kill his wife, or fight back against the terrorists and hope they don’t figure out they have his wife or they’ll kill her.
In “Legally Blonde,” Elle’s emotional dilemma is to stay a bimbo and win back her ex-boyfriend, or stand on her own two feet as a strong woman and find somebody better.
When giving your hero an emotional dilemma to solve, one option always focuses on inaction and passivity while the second option always focuses on uncertainty and action, often action that most frightens the hero.
In “Legally Blonde,” Elle would much rather prefer winning back her ex-boyfriend because the harder option involves studying hard to become a lawyer. Yet that harder option is exactly what she needs to become a better person.
So emotional dilemma’s boil down to two mutually exclusive options:
- Be passive and hope for the best while staying in a comfort zone
- Be proactive and be completely uncomfortable in a new world
Heroes always want the passive, easy route, but what they need is the proactive, uncomfortable route instead.
In “Top Gun: Maverick,” Maverick’s choice is to keep Rooster out of the mission (passive), or let him in the mission (active). The active choice is always the best choice because it provides the most drama since we’re hoping it will work out all right but fearing it may not.
Even though we know most Hollywood movies have happy endings, we still don’t know how that happy ending can occur. So the tension doesn’t come from not knowing the happy ending will arrive, but how it will arrive.
In “Top Gun: Maverick,” there are multiple times when we fear Maverick will never resolve his emotional past with Rooster:
- Maverick must choose a wingman for a dangerous mission. It would be easy to choose Hangman, a better pilot but also reckless, so Maverick chooses Rooster instead.
- During the mission, Rooster is attacked by missiles. Maverick sacrifices his own plane to save Rooster.
- Rooster saves Maverick from getting killed, but gets shot down as well. Now Maverick needs to save Rooster and get him back home by stealing an old F-14 fighter.
- Maverick flies Rooster in the F-14 and encounters two enemy fighters. Maverick decides to dogfight, surprises one and shoots it down, and then outmaneuvers the other one and shoots it down.
- A third enemy fighter arrives and Maverick is all out of weapons and counter-measures, until Hangman, the arrogant pilot, arrives to save them.
- Because Maverick saved Rooster and Rooster saved Maverick, they manage to resolve their bitter past.
The real question isn’t whether the story will have a happy ending, but how that happy ending will occur. That means piling on the obstacles to keep us wondering how can the hero possibly succeed now?
Strip away this emotional foundation between Maverick and Rooster and you essentially don’t have a story. (Watch “Bullet Train” to see what happens when you have all action and no emotional dilemma.)
Emotional dilemmas are always at the heart of drama, so put that in your screenplay and you’ll create a far better story.