The main character in a movie generally has a big problem that it takes the whole movie to solve.

And this is what a professional reader of a script is generally focused on understanding first.  What is that problem?  Why will it be so difficult to solve that it takes the whole movie to do it?  And why should an audience care that they do it?

This last part is key: the audience has to care.  Readers have to care.  And they care because they hopefully relate to the main character, and what they have at stake.  Meaning, what will they lose if they are unable to solve the problem.  (Or what will other people we care about lose, in the case of heroic stories like Erin Brockovich.)

This issue of “stakes” is of paramount importance in screenplays.  And a good logline makes the stakes crystal clear.  Example: “A group of friends hungover from a night in Vegas they don’t remember must find their missing friend in time to get him home for his wedding.”  The stakes are missing the wedding, and beyond that, the possibility that something really bad happened to their friend.

The biggest stakes one can have are obviously “life and death”, and plenty of genres focus primarily on those — horror, action and thriller, etc .  In Save the Cat parlance, you could say a “Dude with a Problem” or “Monster in the House” always has life and death stakes, as do most “Superhero” and “Whodunit” scripts, and a good percentage of “Golden Fleeces”, “Institutionalizeds,” and even some “Buddy Love” movies.

I’d say roughly half of movies have life and death stakes.  The others have stakes that FEEL like the character’s whole life will be over if they fail to reach their goal, even if that’s not literally true.  Not succeeding at solving their overall story problem seems unthinkable — to them, and to the audience, who is so emotionally connected to them that it feels like it’s THEIR problem, too.  For all to be right with the world, they MUST succeed.

It could be that they have met the perfect partner for them and will lose them forever.  Or they’re facing the biggest life-changing opportunity they will ever experience, which will change their status in the world completely.  Or their normal life has been turned upside down, and all chance at future happiness seems to depend on them solving whatever is at the heart of this movie.

What all of these have in common is that they deal with the external life situation of the main character.  Their relationships, health, freedom, independence, career, home, etc. are at risk.  These are palpable, measurable and important things that anyone can relate to, and everyone cares about.  Their stakes are not merely internal.

What do I mean by internal?  Thoughts and feelings.  Beliefs.  Attitudes.

Sometimes I see the central challenge of a script being pitched as the main character needing to change something about their approach to life, to learn something, to heal an internal wound, and/or to become the best version of themselves.

It’s true that many of the best movies feature such a character arc.  But this is not the main story of the movie, and not what should be in the logline.  This is the “inner journey”, that the external challenge of the movie forces the main character to go on.  If you don’t have a huge external challenge where life circumstances (or life itself) are threatened in a massive way, and you only have an internal arc,  you probably don’t have a movie idea with commercial viability.

Movies just aren’t good at portraying characters’ inner lives as the primary topic of the story.  Books can do this, where you explore a character’s inner world, sometimes even more than their external actions and circumstances.  And plays can sometimes do it.  But in movies, the inner arc of the character learning and growing is secondary.  It may be the most impactful and important part of the movie, ultimately, to the writer and even the audience, but it shouldn’t be the main/only problem we’re focusing on.

Blake Snyder talks about the B Story carrying the theme.  The B Story often focused on a challenging relationship in which the main character is forced to focus on their internal growth in some way.  And this theme has something to do with that growth, what they learn, or what they ultimately decide is the best path.  But there’s a reason why it’s kept predominantly in the B Story.  Because the A Story needs to be about outer life  challenges, which involve great (usually interpersonal) conflict, which test the main character to their core, and which threaten something bigger than their internal life, though it’s ultimately interwoven with it.  In other words, external stakes.

     
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.