So, you want to write a screenplay that has universal appeal (don’t we all)?
There are a couple of major things you need to focus on for that to happen: Your plot and the reason for action.
According to Aristotle, “The life and soul of all drama (tragedy) is the plot,” and action is related to the want and need/goal of your main character. In other words, let’s say your protagonist desires or needs love. His or her need is going to drive him or her to respond or act according to the need. Micheal Tierno, in his book Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters says, “When a strong desire of a hero relates to all of the action, then the plot can depict a simple ‘portrait’ of the hero.”
So, often times, action is a emotional response of the character’s need or want. For example: Remember the movie Cocktail (1988), which starred Tom Cruise and Elizabeth Shue? Let’s look at the storyline. Brian Flanagan has just gotten out of the service and wants to make money. He wants his own business, but after being turned down in several job interviews for lack of education, he takes a job working as a bartender. His need for money pushes him to take a job that he’s really not excited about. However, his need produces continued actions (chains of events), to include traveling to Jamaica to work as a bartender at an upscale resort, and meeting Jordan Mooney, the seeming love of his life. His boss, Doug Coughlin also wants to own his own high-end bar, so the two come up with a game-plan. Once again, this flawed protagonist has an agenda, and his need gives rise to action, pushes the plot forward and will eventually guide the story to resolution.
(Tom Cruise- Brian Flanagan in Cocktail, 1988)
Universal appeal is important because for an audience to relate to a character or story there must be a relationship with the character and the storyline. So, when Brian Flanagan’s business partner (the antagonist) puts him to a dare, we (the audience) feel bad for him, because it seems like all is lost. We’ve all been there. Desire and need are powerful things. We somehow relate to his plight, his frustration, his turmoil, and that is universally appealing.
Is universal appeal important? You betcha! Life is a journey, and we are all a part of it. For an audience or reader to relate to a character, there must be character traits, familiar moments that we’ve walked through or witnessed. We know how this character feels because we’ve been there and done that!
According to Aristotle, “A plot must include causes of the action that can arouse the audience’s deepest pity and fear [or laughter and tears]. This means the audience must understand the hero’s thoughts and see those thoughts becoming actions, which in turn reveal a moral quality (character) of the hero.”
Reference: Aristotle’s Poetics by Michael Tierno