The 8 Story Problems
There are only so many types of situations a human being can be in, that are big and relatable enough to base a movie on.
As I see it, successful scripts generally have one of 8 essential challenges or story problems for their main character, when you boil them down to their essence. (Which is a good thing for writers to do.)
These have some cross-over with the ten “genres” in the Save the Cat books, which I find to be an extraordinarily useful tool. I’ve referenced these (and relevant movie examples) after each.
I think it’s very helpful to think in terms of what your main character wants, what’s in the way, and why it’s so important, which is why I’ve described them subjectively in terms of those things. (Those are also the elements a logline should focus on, by the way — the external challenge of the movie, not the internal arc.)
Without further ado, the list:
1. Someone or something is trying to kill me (or us). I have to stop it.
(“Monsters in the House” like Alien or Halloween; “Dudes with a Problem” like The Bourne Identity, Armageddon or Apollo 13; “Institutionalizeds” like The Godfather.)
2. Someone or something is trying to destroy my life as I know it. I have to stop it.
(“Monsters in the House” like Fatal Attraction; “Dudes with a Problem” like Cape Fear; “Rites of Passage” like Bridesmaids; “Superheroes” like A Beautiful Mind; “Out of the Bottles” like Liar Liar, Field of Dreams or All of Me.)
3. I have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rise up and be somebody, in a big way, that will forever change my sense of self.
(“Golden Fleeces” like Rudy, Rocky or School of Rock; “Fools Triumphant” like Working Girl or The 40-Year-Old Virgin, “Institutionalizeds” like Almost Famous or Wall Street.)
4. I have to rescue someone from a potentially terrible fate.
(“Golden Fleeces” like Finding Nemo, The Hangover or Saving Private Ryan.)
5. I have to reach a distant and life-changing “prize,” which seems nearly impossible to do.
(“Golden Fleeces” like The Wizard of Oz, Apocalypse Now or The Sting.)
6. I have to defeat bad guys who have hurt and/or are threatening innocents.
(“Golden Fleeces” like Star Wars; “Dudes with a Problem” like Die Hard; “Superheroes” like Erin Brockovich; “Rites of Passage” like The First Wives Club; “Whydunits” like Chinatown.)
7. I have to escape this terrible situation, which prevents me from living freely and happily.
(“Golden Fleeces” like The Shawshank Redemption, 12 Years a Slave, or The Pursuit of Happiness; “Institutionalizeds” like Office Space or American Beauty.)
8. I want to find, win over or hang onto a desired partner, but something is hugely in the way of that.
(“Rites of Passage” like My Best Friend’s Wedding, Swingers or Superbad; “Buddy Loves” like The Black Stallion, When Harry Met Sally or Brokeback Mountain; “Fools Triumphant” like Mrs. Doubtfire, Forrest Gump or Coming to America.)
If you can think of successful movies that you question whether they fit with any of these, please comment and let me know! I’ll respond with my thoughts.
If you haven't read them already, I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads.