If I could sum up the number one most common overall weakness in screenplays I read, it would be that the main character does not have a big enough overall problem, and a high enough level of difficulty and complications as they try to solve it.
When you get the overall problem right at the concept stage, and you get the “hardness” right as you structure it out, you are way ahead of most writers.
These two elements are ideally what a good logline would focus on: a big and important life crisis for a relatable main character, and an incredibly difficult challenge to solve their problem and reach their goal — in which they are going to be totally overmatched the entire way, and things will get worse and worse, until finally, at the very end, they find a way to win. Just like the most entertaining sporting event, where your team comes from behind when it seemed impossible.
Why is this so important? I’ve concluded that it’s because…
audiences are sadists.
And I include myself in that. We like to watch people go through the most hellishly life-altering situations, and the worse it gets for them, the more engaged we are (as long as there is some hope of success for them, which they are actively pursuing). I don’t care if it’s a horror film, or The 40-Year-Old Virgin, or Whiplash, or a series like 30 Rock or Empire. We tune in to watch people be PUNISHED, and we enjoy seeing characters pushed to their absolute limits and beyond — frustrated, beaten down, devastated, humiliated, and yet passionately, almost insanely driven to try to reach their overall story goal, and better their life situation.
Why? I think on some basic primal level, we consume stories because they are inspirational examples of people rising above. The problems characters face in movies (and on TV) tend to be greatly exaggerated, in one way or another, from our normal lives — which is part of what makes them entertaining. But on a basic emotional level, we can still relate to and get caught up in their attempts to better their lives, and we become invested in the possibility of them defeating long odds to come out on top. And when they do so, we feel like WE have done it, with them.
But the success has to only come at the very end. There can be glimmers of positive forward motion in the middle, but only glimmers — and these generally have to be immediately followed by things getting worse (or at least a reminder that things, overall, are still pretty bad). This is generally true from the “Catalyst” all the way to the final climactic battle in the third act. The focus is on the difficulties. You’ve heard it said that conflict is the life blood of drama (or comedy)? Another way of saying it is that problems are the life blood — especially problems that worsen and complicate, and defy solving.
George M. Cohan’s famous quote still applies: “In the first act, you get your main character up a tree. In the second act, you throw rocks at them. In the third act, you get them down.” The nature of what that tree is, and what those rocks are, is key. You could even say that “main character + tree + rocks = story” — and that’s the main thing any agent or producer is looking for, in your logline, synopsis, or script: “Why should I relate to this character? How is the tree big and important enough? How might there be enough rocks to escalate the story all the way to the climax?”
Genres can be helpful here. If you work within an especially commercial genre like action movies or thrillers, where the stakes of solving the problem are life-and-death, then you might be covered — in terms of the overall problem being important enough. But you still have to find a way to make the degree of difficulty, and all the complications along the way, big and compelling enough (while still logical and believable).
Stakes are always one of the fundamental questions about any story problem. What will happen if the character fails at their goal? If failure won’t make life unthinkably worse, to a degree that the audience will feel personally devastated if it happens, then you probably don’t have a big enough story problem and goal.
And this is what I see often: the main character is not in a situation that is problematic and difficult enough, with big enough stakes to make the audience strongly care. Sometimes this is because all that the character has to lose is internal and emotional, as opposed to outer life circumstances. In movies, the internal stuff isn’t enough (though it should be there, too). You need something palpable, tangible, and universally relatable in their world to be at stake.
The ten story types in the Save the Cat books can be useful here, as they each deal with a particular kind of human problem with universally relatable stakes, that has served as the basis for countless successful movies. But understanding these genres and finding the right fit can be tricky. This is a big part of what I work with writers on when they bring me a concept, or I analyze a script.
Ultimately, we want the audience to care deeply, while being fascinated and entertained by what is happening. This caring only tends to occur when they are watching relatable people struggle and improvise in the face of some sort of hellish siege — where they’re undertaking a monstrously huge challenge, that they’re sure to lose, but which is desperately important to all being right with their world.
Test this out, and see if your favorite movies don’t meet these criteria. (And let me know what you find.)
I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads. And if you'd like me to read something you're working on, check out my consulting page.