Touching a Raw Nerve

What makes one movie a classic and another movie a forgettable film that pretty much goes straight to DVD? I think the answer lies in making a story that touches an emotional nerve in all of us.

“Thelma and Louise” got women excited and feeling empowered. It’s not that the plot was original (no plots are) or that the action was incredible. What made “Thelma and Louise” special was that it touched a raw nerve and tapped into our emotions.

Look at a movie like “Terminator 3” and compare it to “Terminator 2.” In Terminator 2,” the story is less important than the emotional feeling of the Terminator as a father figure, willing to sacrifice himself. There was another emotion behind “Terminator 2” and that was the idea that a machine can learn the value of a human life, so maybe we can too. That’s the theme of the movie, but it drives the entire movie.

Now look at “Terminator 3” and it’s just a rehash of the same action but without the underlying theme, and that’s why “Terminator 3” comes off as flat and boring while “Terminator 2” comes across as special.

When writing your own screenplay, think beyond just plotting and story structure. Think about what you want your movie to do. Every movie represents a point of view about a topic whether that topic is greed (“Wall Street”), crime (“The Godfather”), or violence (“Kill Bill”). Notice that Quentin Tarantino films always have a distinct point of view. Stanley Kubrick films also had a distinct point of view. Does “Grease 2,” “Terminator Salvation,” or “The Next Karate Kid” even attempt to have a theme and distinct point of view? No, and that’s why those films are just a tragic waste of time.

What is it that your movie is really all about? It’s not about a hero overcoming obstacles and achieving a goal. It’s always about choosing a point of view and touching our emotions. We question the worth of human life, so “Terminator 2” helps us deal with that feeling.

We always wander what our life might be like if we were totally free, and that’s what “Titanic” does for us, validating our sense that we want to be free from restrictions too.

Women always deal with the feeling that society treats them as second class citizens, so “Thelma and Louise” helps them fulfill their own dreams of getting back at obnoxious men.

All great movies touch an emotion whether it’s love (“Casablanca”) or the worth of our own life (“It’s a Wonderful LIfe”). Look for a universal theme that can touch the nerves of everyone. Once you find that, then telling your story to emphasize that theme will help structure your story far better than any formulaic approach can ever do.

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