One of the first things I learned as a development executive is that there’s a BIG difference between a good story and a story that makes a good movie. Back then, where true-life movies were king, we would watch hours of “news” shows like Hard Copy (hence the “” on news) to glean our next big movie. (Hey, it wasn’t just us, everyone did it.) 99% of them were interesting stories packed with emotions but only 1% had the elements necessary to make a good movie.
So what, you may ask, are the elements that make a movie and how are they different from a good news story or magazine article? Here are five simple questions to ask yourself to determine if your story idea has enough to be a movie.
Does the story have and identifiable main character & nemesis? The audience needs to be able to figure out who the main character is relatively quickly. Whose story is this? Who am I supposed to care about? The main character doesn’t necessarily have to make an immediate appearance – think of the classic example of “Casablanca” where everybody talks about Rick in his absence. By the time he actually appears you’re dying to know who the heck this guy is. Yes, a script can be an ensemble piece with several characters equally sharing the lead role but that’s pretty tough to pull off and I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re just starting out.
It’s good to keep in mind that the audience doesn’t necessarily have to like the main character. That’s why I keep calling it a main character and not a hero. Sometimes anti-heroes make the best main characters. More important than liking the main character is the idea that the audience can relate to them.
Almost as important is identifying who the nemesis is. Notice I didn’t say villain. The nemesis is who or what is standing between your main character and their ultimate goal. It could be a tornado, it could be simply a ticking clock, or it could be a person who isn’t necessarily evil. Usually this role is best played by a standard villain but bringing a fresh new take to a story never kept a movie from getting made. Keep in mind that it’s often more fun to make the audience think they know who the villain is only to find they were wrong at some point in the movie.
A good rule of thumb to remember is that the “hero” can only be as heroic as the “villain” is bad. Your fishermen can’t be going up against a rainstorm, it has to be the STORM OF THE CENTURY. Frodo didn’t have to drive over to the 7-11 to destroy the ring, he had to go through Mordor, etc. etc. You get the idea.
Does the main character have a relatable goal? The audience needs to be able to understand what your main character wants. What’s motivating him (or her)? Love? Greed? Fear? Goals are best if they are both specific and have universal appeal. For instance, wanting to save your home and 10 acres of corn from a flood is specific yet universal enough that an accountant in France understands how your character feels. This is especially true if the main character desires something controversial. If you can get an audience who disagrees with your main character’s desire but roots for them anyway, you don’t need to be a fortune teller to see that you’re going to have a long and fruitful career as a writer.
Is there something in the way of the main character achieving the goal? It’s equally important to understand what’s in the main characters way of achieving this goal. Just like with characters, his journey is only as interesting as the obstacles in his way. The obstacles in your character’s way have to escalate and continue to build. Most pitches – and movies – fail because there’s simply not enough happening in the middle of the movie. Plus, you have to make sure you’re not simply marking time; if you have variations of the same beat repeated over and over again it makes for a flat, boring movie.
Does the main character DO something to achieve their goal? This is where most interesting stories fail to make great movies. By action, I don’t mean a car chase or shootout. The main character just needs to take steps to achieve their goal. Speeches, protests or even bringing flowers to woo someone are all active. The main character may be reluctant to take action or he may be forced into it. He (or she) may take the wrong action at first or they may realize in the course of the story that they don’t really want what/who they thought they did.
Whatever the action, it has to be enough to fill 2 hours. That requires the character taking steps, having an obstacle arise; he or she conquers it and then moves forward only to have another, larger obstacle arise. The obstacles/dangers have to continue to escalate, not just be repeated over and over in different circumstances. Many movies fail because they have a great beginning and a great ending but no middle to support it.
You’ll notice “ do they all live happily ever after” isn’t one of the questions. Personally, I like a nice happy ending or at least one that’s bittersweet. I hate investing two hours of my very busy life only to get attached to a character and then feel crappy when they lose. However, that’s just my personal taste; many great movies have unhappy endings but they work because the writers have very carefully constructed a story in which a tragic ending was the most logical way to bring closure to the movie. Butch and Sundance would have sucked as a movie if the heroes had lived, for instance. (Sorry, should have put a spoiler alert in there for the three of you out there who’ve never seen this classic.)
That, in a nutshell, is it. If you can answer “yes” to ALL of these questions then you’re on your way to turning your story into a good movie.