The Real Story vs. the Physical Story

Every story consists of two parts. First, there’s the visual, physical story that captures everyone’s attention such as “a man must fight against an army of terrorists alone while trapped in a skyscraper” (“Die Hard”) or “a woman must survive the sinking of the Titanic” (“Titanic”). Unfortunately, if you limit your screenplay to just this visual, physical, exciting story concept, you’ll risk creating meaningless duds that had a good idea and executed it poorly like “Sex Tape,” “The Spy Who Dumped Me,” or “Skyscraper.”

The first problem is to create an interesting story concept that can grab anyone’s attention because it’s easy to understand such as “the world is devastated by sightless creatures that will hunt and kill you if they hear you make a noise” (“A Quiet Place”). Now the hard part after creating an interesting idea is to execute it properly.

Execution is the real story behind the physical story. Nobody cares about explosions, gore, gunfire, and karate fights if all that action means nothing (think of “Terminator Genesys”). What people really care about is what the story is actually about.

In “A Quiet Place,” the real story isn’t about sightless creatures hunting down people when they make a noise. The actual story is about a man trying to protect his family. To protect his family, he has to show them love.

Every character in “A Quiet Place” isn’t just running around trying to avoid getting killed like a typical bad horror movie. Instead, they’re all trying to find love from each other. The father is trying to protect his family and eventually show his love to his daughter, who accidentally got her younger brother killed. This daughter is trying to overcome her own guilt and win back the love of her father.

The mother is pregnant and in love with the father while trying to protect her family as well. The son is terrified of the new world of sightless monsters so the father is trying to help him build his confidence to one day protect the family too. So every character is trying to help each other through love and to achieve this, they just happen to have to overcome challenges in fighting sightless monsters.

Now compare this to a bad horror film where some serial killer or creature just keeps killing people we don’t care about. Such slasher flicks get dull and boring when characters stupidly blunder into dark rooms and shout “Hello” while the killer lurks nearby. There’s no suspense in these bad horror films because we don’t care about the characters, and we don’t care about the characters because we don’t know what they want and they appear just long enough to die, so even their death means nothing to us than watching a random stranger die.

“A Quiet Place” attracts audiences with its premise (humanity is being hunted by sightless creatures who track victims by sound) and makes that premise work by telling us the real story, which is about a family trying to show their love for each other.

Pick any premise and you can plug in any real story behind it. “Die Hard” might seem to be about fighting terrorists single-handedly, but it’s really about a man trying to get back with his wife. Watch all the bad “Die Hard” sequels to see how stripping away the real, emotional story leaves you with nothing but an empty shell of mindless action and meaningless violence.

“Jaws” seemed to be about a shark, but it’s really about one man (the sheriff) trying to redeem himself after letting the shark kill a little boy. Now watch all the bad “Jaws” sequels to see nothing but people fighting and dying by shark attacks with no emotional story behind it.

Every story is a premise and execution. The premise grabs our attention with an interesting challenge such as fighting single-handedly against an army of terrorists in a skyscraper (“Die Hard”) or fighting against a shark (“Jaws”). Once you have an interesting premise, you must follow up with proper execution, and that means finding an emotional story for the physical story (premise) to tell as well.

Stop with just the premise and you have the recipe for a bad movie. Create an interesting premise and follow up with an emotional story and you have the foundation for a great movie.

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