1. ROOTING INTEREST IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN PLOT
Midway through DUNKIRK, I turned to my friend and said, “Wait, is that the plane from earlier? Are sea and air narratives about to intersect?” My friend said, “I have no fucking idea. Shut up, I’m watching this.”
This illustrates a truth about story telling. Everything, plot, arc, metaphor, is secondary to a rooting interest. If you care about what a character is trying to achieve you’ll be invested.
DUNKIRK illustrates this well. It doesn’t matter if you’re tracking the three-part chronology, you basically like the characters, you know that they want to survive/get off the beach/rescue people/help with the rescue via air combat. The story is easy to track because it’s clear how every development gets them closer to or further from that goal.
2. ROOTING INTEREST IS CREATED BY A CHARACTER GOAL
More specifically, it’s created by our relationship with a character and our understanding of what they want. Don’t worry about petting dogs or saving cats, don’t worry about likability or relatabilty. All you need to be is clear, and readers relate to a clear character by default. Even if we hate a character, knowing their goal gives us something to root against.
3. GOALS MUST BE SPECIFIC
Readers track the story by tracking the goal. The goal must be concrete, something that can be photographed. “Make the world a better place?” Can’t photograph that. “Make the world a better place by opening an animal shelter?” I can. Is the animal shelter open yet? No? Then the story is still going. I’ll follow any development so long as it’s at least tangentially related to achieving the goal.
4. GOALS MUST BE ROOTED IN CHARACTER
The specific goal should come from a deeper character want. If you want me to give a shit about a character opening a sandwich shop, I need to know what it represents to him/her, what he/she wants out out of life, and why this represents the best and only way to get it. This related exercise may help.
5. GOALS MUST BE ESTABLISHED RELATIVELY QUICKLY
The first act sets up goal, stakes, and character. If you don’t like/believe in acts, it’s gotta be by the first 25%. Otherwise it’s like trying to follow a sport you don’t know the rules to without an onscreen scoreboard.
This is actually one of the hard, fast rules of writing. If you can think of an example of a movie that DOESN’T do this, I’d love to hear it.
6. FINALLY, GOALS CAN CHANGE
If a character starts off wanting to open an animal shelter, this can evolve. Maybe he ends up giving up on that to help his sister achieve her dream. Maybe he becomes the unlikely savior of the world when aliens attack. Maybe anything.
The goal can shift, because it’s a concrete manifestation of the deeper character want (see step 5). Remember, what the character wants is only a part of creating a clear rooting interest for the story. Regardless of what’s occuring onscreen, you the writer should have a clear sense of what the audience is rooting for at any given moment.