These same elements are present time and time again in the great movies, like King Kong, The Outlaw Josey Wales, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Meet Me in St. Louis, It's A Wonderful Life, Sunset Boulevard and Touch of Evil and they are worth highlighting:
1. These movies tend to have a strong single line - with one overriding problem or goal for the hero - to give the story drive, momentum, and a sense of priorities, or in the extreme, a sense of the first cause.
2. These films occasionally digress from that strong line to allow the film to "breathe". That is, they play with the structure to comment on what is happening, to cause the viewers to rethink their expectations, and to present actions or words that make an abstract, or thematic, point.
3. These films usually have heroes with a moral problem. The hero commits or fails to commit actions that hurt other people. These are characters with moral flaws, and the stories drive toward the moment when the hero uncovers his or her moral blindness.
4. Perhaps the most crucial element of great films is that the audience believes what each is fighting about. Even more important, these movies attach entire clusters of values and beliefs to the two antagonists. The great movies set up, around a single central opposition, an array of other oppositions that grow until they have national or even international implications, and present the essential predicaments of human life.
5. The great movies have powerful, condensed openings that present the crucial patterns of the story and then slowly bring these patterns to the surface and explore them in an explicit way. By the end the audience has a sense of the patterns of thought and values that cause problems, not just for these particular characters but for anyone anywhere.
6. These movies make a moral argument. They show a hero and an opponent taking actions to reach their goal, and then justifying what they do with arguments that the audience can judge.
7. These movies don't just present a hero and an opponent. They show a unique and detailed world. In this world, larger forces are at work, values and world views are made clear, and what happens in the stories affects other characters who, though minor, are full human beings.
8. The great movies show great ambition. They ask the key question: what makes a good life? They give various answers, some of which may not be valid, but they force the audience to see their own lives in this kind of grand way. And that is the only way that meaningful change is possible.
9. The great movies usually present a world that works relatively no matter how hard we try to make it absolute. These films do not say that nothing exists, nothing is true, nothing is good, or nothing is right. But they explore in detail the way that meaning, truth, good, and right bend as human beings change and face new circumstances. In this life, these films say, a human being either creates value from what is available or dies.
John Truby has been bringing his acclaimed screenwriting class to London since 1995. Check out Anatomy of Story