"What's your movie about?” John asked.
"It's Godfather meets Top Gun." boasted Rick.
John replied, "I've never seen it, what's it about?"
"It’s about a flight school."
Making sure he understood, John quipped, "Oh, you mean it was about someone taking flying lessons?"
"No, he already knew how to fly." Rick said.
"I get it! It was about an instructor at the school, and how he taught people how to fly!" said John, emphatically. He felt like he just aced his final exam.
Visibly frustrated, Rick replied, "No, some of that's in the movie, but that's not what it's about.”
Feeling like he just got punched in the stomach, John wouldn’t give in. They were friends. Rick wouldn’t let him keep struggling like this. Would he?
"It's about the politics, deception, and greed of the staff and students?”
"No.” Rick was about to let him have it. “It's about a naval pilot that enters Top Gun, the most prestigious naval fighter pilot school in the country, to prove he's the best in the world.”
“That’s awesome!” he replied. For a moment, the struggle was finally over. Then, he felt a sudden fear, like he was about to say something he’d regret.
“That’s what your movie is about?”
“No, that's an element of it, but that's not what it's about.” Rick replied.
John was defeated. He couldn’t go through this again.
After an awkward moment of silence, he found the silver lining.
“You’ll let me be the first to read the script?”
Finally, on the same page again, Rick replied, “Always.”
Does your story have the same problem? Do you have an idea for a setting, but your character doesn't have a goal? Do you love The Avengers, but didn't think the protagonist was Loki?
He's the one with the clear goal, facing clear opposition, who moves the story forward by his actions. Do the Avengers come together if Loki doesn’t try to take over the world? If no one’s in danger, is there anyone to save?
Character + Goal + Opposition = what your movie is about.
I know, your character has a flaw and the movie is really about your character's struggle to fulfill his emotional need.
That’s not the action that moves the story forward. Think about it. Your character is selfish until he learns to love helping people, which in turn, helps him become unselfish.
What happens so that he learns the lesson? The action he takes.
A struggling actor with a temperamental reputation disguises himself as a woman to get a role in a soap opera. (Tootsie)
The actor has a clear goal. Get a job. It’s his actions that move the story forward. The opposition is the other actors, competing for the same job. During the course of the movie, the actor will become a better man.
A robot from the future travels back in time to kill a woman whose son will lead the human race in a war against the machines. (Terminator)
The Terminator is the character that moves the story forward. He has a clear goal. Kill the son’s mother. Obviously, the opposition is clear. With the help of Reese, she will try to survive.
What does your character want? What’s stopping him?
So tell me, what’s your story about?