Once you’ve defined the basic plot of your story, the next step is to dig deeper and define the emotional story behind the plot. When people come up with a story idea, they often create a vague, abstract concept that hints of a conflict and unusual situation, but lacks an actual emotional goal.
Every story consists of two parts: the visual, physical story and the real, emotional story underneath. The visual, physical story describes what happens. The emotional story defines why it matters.
For example, the visual, physical story in “Die Hard” is about a man fighting an army of terrorists alone in a skyscraper. Yet fighting terrorists isn’t the point of the story. Instead, the real, emotional story is about a man trying to get back with his wife.
Notice this massive contrast. Ask anyone what “Die Hard” is about and they’ll likely focus on a man single-single-handedly fighting terrorists, but that’s not the hero’s real goal. His real goal is to get back with his wife. Strip away the terrorists and his goal is still to get back with his wife. The visual, physical story has nothing to do with the real, emotional story that the hero wants to achieve.
Bad movies omit the real, emotional story. Instead, they try to create an interesting story solely through visual, physical action, which means more gunfire, more explosions, more sex, and more special effects. The end result is a lot of action that means absolutely nothing.
Watch any bad James Bond movie and you can see lots of gunfire, fights, and car crashes, but what you won’t see is any emotion behind all this action. Action by itself means nothing if we don’t care and we can only care when we know why the outcome of the action even matters.
When an army of assassins keeps popping up long enough for James Bond to kill them seconds later, we really don’t care because we don’t know why surviving is important at all. To make action emotionally compelling, we must know how the action threatens:
- The hero
- Someone the hero loves
When action threatens the hero, it doesn’t just threaten the hero physically but also emotionally as well. When the ocean liner starts sinking in “Titanic,” that threatens both the hero’s life (Rose) and the life of Jack, her lover. Jack represent’s Rose’s dream of choosing her own life. All action threatens Rose physically and emotionally. That makes the action compelling because we know what’s at stake if the hero fails to overcome each obstacle.
Action isn’t just about visual movement, but about emotional engagement. All action must be consistent in threatening the hero and/or the someone the hero loves. If action fails to threaten the hero and/or someone the hero loves, then the action is pointless.
Watch any good movie and study every action scene, even if that action is nothing more than two people arguing. That action always threatens the hero’s emotional dream and/or someone the hero loves.
In an early scene in “The Hunger Games,” the hero wants to protect her little sister from being chosen to fight to the death. When her little sister is chosen, she quickly volunteers to take her place. Action is always about threatening the hero and/or someone the hero loves, and then forcing the hero to respond.
In a later scene in “The Hunger Games,” the hero’s little sister is no longer around but the action now threatens either the hero’s life, or threatening someone the hero loves. In one scene, the hero is being judged on her fighting skills but all the judges ignore her. Although this action isn’t violent, it does make her mad and threatens her sense of who she is so she responds by shooting an arrow near the judges’ heads to make them acknowledge her.
Action must force the hero to react. Then the hero’s reaction creates more action that forces the hero to respond in an endless cycle until the end. We can only care about the outcome and the response to the action when we know and care about the hero. Once we know what the hero wants, then any action that threatens the hero or someone the hero loves becomes a threat to what we care about too.
All action must keep bringing the hero closer to achieving the initial emotional dream. By the time the story finally ends, we must know whether the hero achieved the emotional dream or not.
In “Rocky,” the emotional dream is for Rocky to prove that he’s not a bum. By the end, he’s stayed on his feet the entire fight against Apollo Creed (which no other fighter has ever done before) and the world finally acknowledges that he’s not a bum.
In romantic comedies like “The Proposal,” the hero’s emotional dream is to find true love. By the end, she finally finds true love.
In “Back to the Future,” Marty’s emotional dream is to believe in himself. By the end, he’s pursued his dream of playing the guitar that brings his parents together and is a much stronger person when he returns to his own time.
In “A Quiet Place,” the father’s emotional dream is to protect his family. By the end, he sacrifices himself to save his son and daughter.
An emotional dream gives the hero a direction. The visual, physical story gives the hero a path to achieving the emotional dream while providing obstacles that threaten to stop the hero.
In “Die Hard,” the hero isn’t just fighting terrorists for the sake of fighting. He’s trying to save his wife because his emotional dream from the start has always been to get back with her. Until the end, we never know if he will ever get back with his wife or not. That emotional dream provides context and meaning to the visual, physical story of fighting terrorists alone in a skyscraper.
Once the audience cares about the hero’s emotional dream, then the audience will also care about how the hero overcomes the obstacles from the visual, physical story, and that’s the true story that people really care about.