I love The Sixth Sense (which I’ll spoil the ending of, if you haven’t seen it). And one reason I love The Sixth Sense is that it got me. I didn’t see the big twist coming. I later rewatched it, trying to figure out why I didn’t notice that Willis was dead, when suddenly I had a revelation that changed the way I write and even the way I watch movies: A movie is not about a person, it’s about a person’s problem.
Bruce Willis’s character is fighting with his wife. We assume that this is because he works too much. Actually, it’s because he’s an invisible ghost and she has no idea he’s still around. But here’s the crazy thing: they have scenes together throughout the movie. So why don’t we notice how extreme their lack of communication is? Why do we assume that they’re just freezing each other out? Because we’ve been trained to expect very lean storytelling in movies. The first time we watch the movie, we falsely infer that Willis and his wife are still saying a few words to each other every morning and evening, but we’re just not seeing that onscreen. A movie that only shows a couple fighting is not unusual, because a movie isn’t about a person’s whole life, it’s just about a person’s problem.
This is why they say not to begin a story with the hero getting up in the morning. That’s not when their problem started. This is also why they say that you should enter a scene in mid-conversation and leave before it’s done. You’re not following someone throughout their day, you just need to focus on one problem in their life.
This is also why they say that the central conflict has to begin in the very first scene, before we’ve even had a chance to get to know the character. First-time writers balk at this rule. Can’t we get to know the person for a few scenes before we know the problem? Nope. Because the movie isn’t about the person. It’s about the person’s problem.