How to write movies that stand out? Here’s a fresh writing tip:
When writers learn about how to write movies, they need more than act structure and plot points. I’m a big fan of mastering the craft, but Oscar-worthy films have more going on than all the right plot points in all the right places.
If you take a look at the Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning films throughout the ages, yes, they’re dominated by white people, they have to be directed by a guy, they need to have the words “King” or “Night” in it, they need to be a drama, and they need to have Meryl Streep. All that’s true. But something else is also true:
Movies with no bad guys almost always stand out.
The films pictured above are some of my favorites: Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood, Moonlight, Bridesmaids, The Full Monty, The King’s Speech. More Oscar winning classics with no bad guys? Lost in Translation; Juno; Little Miss Sunshine; Garden State.
The list is long. In fact, if you’re willing:
In the comments section: willing to name films or shows you love that have no bad guys?
I’m compiling a list of recommendations and I thank you in advance for doing that!
writing tip 1: Movies with no bad guys don’t lack conflict
Far from it. Let’s look at the films I list above:
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is fraught with conflict; with seemingly insurmountable conflict, which is the best kind. Mr. Rogers must turn a bitter and cynical reporter who punches his own father into the loving and openhearted person that’s been hiding inside.
In Bridesmaids the main character is scared about losing her best friend. (Been there, done that!)
The King’s Speech is centered around King George VI’s insecurities – the sordid past that lead him to stutter.
writing tip 2: Movies with no bad guys aren’t escapist fluff.
Moonlight? Hello somebody. A movie about communities that our society targets for destruction; the drama caused by addictions, poverty, sexism and homophobia. (I say sexism because there’s no other reason we would ever leave any woman to raise a child by herself.)
Despite being about the harshness of multiple oppressions, the film is about the inner struggle to find connection, love, and self-love.
The reason these films stand out is because they’re not about bad guys – they’re about being human.
That’s what happened when I wrote The Martian: Why Every Movie Here On Should be a Remake Of It. I realized as I wrote about the film that I loved it because it had no bad guys. (There were some government dudes or something that weren’t keen on whatever plan was being hatched, but they were a minuscule subplot that nobody cared about much.) The meat of it was the intelligence, creativity, resilience of a human being who approaches a problem, a life threatening problem, with joy and ingenuity.
I also wrote an article on my favorite films of 2019 called: How to Write About Pain by Focusing on Joy. Similar concept from a different angle.
Before I continue, quick word from the sponsors (umm… that’d be me…) For my favorite writing and filmmaking tips, request membership (free) and receive my courtesy trainings for writers and filmmakers.
writing tip 3: how to write a movie with lots of bad guys? Don’t focus on the bad guys.
In great movies or shows that are all about the bad guys, the central conflict is still not about the bad guys.
The Deer Hunter (why not discuss timeless classics) is about the cruelty of war. That movie is wall-to-wall bad guys. But the central conflict is between best friends: can Michael get Nick, who’s lost his mind, to remember himself and come home with him? The conflict in that film is not about the bad guys.
Confession: I binge-watched all five seasons of Breaking Bad years after everyone else did. (Holy cow, I’m gonna make a show that good. That’s my plan and I’m sticking to it.)
While that show is wall-to-wall bad guys (even the good guy is a bad guy), the central conflict is about the love between Walt and his family. That’s the conflict that drives the show and keeps us on the edge of our seat.
The movie that turned me into a filmmaker Compelled me to share this writing tip
When I was three-years-old, I saw a movie in a movie theater for the first time. It was Mary Poppins and I was done in. The deal was sealed. I was gonna make movies.
When I recently rewatched it and was taken by surprise when the waterworks began. (Didn’t remember it being a cry-y kinda film!) But there I was bawling when Bert sang to Mr. Banks.
That’s what prompted me to write this article. No bad guys. That’s the magic trick. That’s the ultimate writing magic trick.
When Bert sings to Mr. Banks ever so kindly and gently about spending more time with his children… blurgh… I’m getting choked up just writing about it… There is no judgement in his words or tone.
Rather than waving his finger at him, he lovingly invites him to notice his children. The chimney sweep views the cold-hearted banker as an essentially good person who’s gotten lost. Gorgeous way to address class. That’s the kind of bad guy – and movie – that stands the test of time.
The film is, at its heart, a profound criticism of the life of “the colonizers” – how inhuman our own lives are when money is our primary value. And more importantly – how rich and creative and wondrous life is, when it’s about connection.
There was no need to hate a bad guy in order to talk about (or rather sing about) just how better things would be – for all of us – if our society was built on kindness rather than greed.
Oh, and if you’re looking to watch one, my own film, Tomorrow Ever After, is definitely an example of no bad guys 🙂
What are movies or shows with no bad guys that you love? Leave a comment below.
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26 thoughts on “How to Write Movies that Stand Out: Writing Tips for Beginners and Pros”
Harold and Maude
Toy Story. Yes Dear (comedy series)
I just wrote HINDSIGHT, with no bad guys, and I didn’t even think about it.
Moonlight, Magnolia, Little Miss Sunshine, The Last Samurai, Intouchables (French) to name a few. Great post.
thanks michi! 🙂
Ela, when it comes to movies without bad guys, here’s my list:
“The Sound of Music” (1965)
“Love Story” (1970)
“Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” (1971)
“The Blues Brothers” (1980)
“National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983)
“Planes, Trains, & Automobiles” (1987)
“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation ” (1989)
“Forrest Gump” (1994)
“Love Jones” (1997)
“My Best Friend’s Wedding” (1997)
“Soul Food” (1997)
“My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (2002)
“Anger Management” (2003)
“Akeelah and the Bee” (2006(
La Strada, by Frederico Fellini, is my favorite film. The lead is harsh, but he melts, maybe too late, but enough to make the film a heartbreaker.
The movie Hero with Dustin Hoffman
” October Sky”
“Planes, Trains and Automobiles”
” The Music Man”
“This is 40”
Gorgeous had a “bad guy” that was the good guys best friend.
Wow, great article! I often write a script and then think I don’t have bad guys or they aren’t bad enough. And maybe I can go look at that again in more depth. The script I just finished is more of a ‘quartet’ film about people stuck in ‘bad’ circumstances and abused by as institution, but one character did turn out to be a bad guy,(gal) who drives everything and becomes a symbol of sorts, for the institutional abuse. And she scares me!
Movies where the ‘bad guy’ didn’t matter:
Whale Rider (2002)
Jurassic Park (1993)
Love Story (1970)
Thank you period this could be fun.
Now to answer your first question::
You Got Mail
Rules of Attraction
Dazed and Confused
Kremer vs kremer
As Good As It Gets
Synecdoche, New York
In the Mood for Love
Coffee and Cigarettes
Uncle Boonmee Who Can….
Lots and lots of ‘bad guy’ movies that I love because the ‘guy’ isn’t bad, but his behaviour is, and just the mere fact of the good guy choosing to see him that way is what makes a good movie great – it’s more grounded in reality, more empathic, and even more morally centered. My list:
Batman Begins (l like this one better than the sequels, for some reason)
the Harry Potter franchise (I sense some very deep psychological/archetypal underpinnings there, very powerful)
Some Film Noir gems like Dark Passage, Casablanca, the Maltese Falcon
Other older classics like Now, Voyager, The Women, and Cabin In the Sky
Lots of others, too many to name, some I forgot for now but should also be on this list for sure.
Four weddings and a funeral
Fried green tomatoes
The great debaters
Mr. Holland’s Opus, A League of Their Own
These three bollywood movies are which I remember right now
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?