It’s the weekend. You’ve just spent 20 bucks on a movie and popcorn. As you leave the theater what’s the first thing you do?
If you’re like me you’ll turn to your girlfriend, buddy, husband or mother and ask them: what’d you think?
We’re all critics and usually have an opinion on the movies we see. Sometimes you may not know why you liked or didn’t like the film, you’ll just have a gut reaction. As writers it’s important to fine-tune our critical skills so we can better assess whether our material works or not. While movies are inherently subjective, in general, a well-told story that follows proper structure will connect to an audience.
So what does a successful movie, and therefore screenplay, need to have?
A Strong Protagonist with a Compelling Goal.
In Up Carl was so driven to pursue his and his wife’s lifelong goal of exploring the wilds of South America that he tied balloons to his house in order to get there.
Hurt Locker’s Sergeant William James disposes of life threatening explosives in war-torn Iraq.
In Little Miss Sunshine The Hoover’s are determined to get Olive to the pageant no matter what.
These are all incredibly powerful goals that we can easily get behind and become invested in for the duration of the movie.
Obstacles that stand in the way of our protagonist’s goal keep us hooked into the story to find out the outcome. We’re driven to find out if our hero will achieve their goal.
Russell complicates Carl’s goal at every turn as does Kevin, Muntz, the balloon-tethered house and of course Carl’s inner demons.
James faces one bomb after another, each one more difficult than the next, including a body bomb left inside a young boy and a human time bomb he’s unable to diffuse in time.
The Hoover’ face all sorts of complications on their quest, from a broken van to an untimely death.
An Emotional Transformation
We go to see movies because we want the experience of transformation. Even the most straightforward action films have the emotionally satisfying experience of good triumphing over bad. Without this element it’s unlikely we’ll connect to the film or find it satisfying.
In Up Carl fulfils his and his wife’s dream and is able to reconcile the loss, enabling him to return to his community a changed man.
James returns home and discovers that the only life he’s cut out for is military life and leaves his wife and infant son for another tour of duty.
And while we want Olive to get to the pageant what we really want is for her family to reconcile their differences. Which they do after Olive’s stunningly inappropriate performance.
These transformations all make for very satisfying movies and, while a film like Up has a happier ending than say Hurt Locker, both films resolve the central character’s goals and make for meaningful films.
Without a clear goal, meaningful obstacles and an emotionally satisfying resolution it’s unlikely you’ll connect to a movie. So the next time you leave the theater and you’re not sure why you did or didn’t like the movie you can ask yourself if it had these three essential elements: strong protagonist with a compelling goal, meaningful conflict and an emotional transformation. Chances are if you liked it these elements were there working in concert to tell a compelling, entertaining story.
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