Every great movie is founded not on physical action but on emotional change. Action supplements the emotional story so it’s important to give your hero an emotional dream to pursue from start to finish.
The easiest way to identify the emotional dream in any movie is to look at the emotional impact the movie leaves you with in the end. In “The Shawshank Redemption,” the emotional ending is one of hope and happiness when the two men meet on the beach, which lets us know that the hero is doing well and his friend managed to escape as well.
Once you identify the emotional ending of a movie, then you automatically know that the hero must be at the opposite emotional spectrum in the end. So in “The Shawshank Redemption,” the hero is happy at the end, that means the hero must be sad in the beginning. Basically, the emotional state of the hero is the complete opposite than the end.
Take the beginning and end of any great movie and you’ll find the hero’s emotional dream can be simplified to a starting point in the beginning that changes to the complete opposite in the end.
In “WALL-E,” the beginning is where WALL-E is lonely so by the end, WALL-E has finally found somebody to love.
In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the beginning is where the hero’s family doesn’t get along. By the end, the hero’s family has finally come together to support and love one another.
In “Back to the Future,” the beginning is where the hero doesn’t feel confidence in himself and lives with a screwed up family. By the end, the hero feels confident in himself and has changed the past so his family is no longer screwed up.
Once you recognize that the beginning of a hero’s emotional state is completely opposite by the end of the story, the next step is to define the transition states in between. For anyone to change, they need to see a new way of life and then feel pain if they fail to change. So the four-part structure of emotional change in every hero looks like this:
- Negative emotional state
- See a new way to live
- Feel the pain from his old way of life
- Positive emotional state
This four-part structure of emotional change looks like this in “Die Hard”:
- Negative emotional state — John McClane wants to get back with his wife
- See a new way to live — John McClane contacts the police about the terrorists so the police can save his wife
- Feel the pain of the old way of living — John Mcclane realizes his own arrogance tore him apart from his wife
- Positive emotional state — John McClane is no longer arrogant and gets back with his wife
Heroes have an emotional dream but often can’t achieve it because of their own limiting belief about themselves. By changing their beliefs, the hero can finally achieve their emotional dream.
This four-part structure of emotional change looks like this in “Tootsie”:
- Negative emotional state — The hero treats women poorly
- See a new way to live — Masquerading as a woman, the hero becomes a soap opera star
- Feel the pain of the old way of living — Unable to fall in love with his co-star while masquerading as a woman, the hero feels the pain of being treated poorly
- Positive emotional state — The hero now treats women as equals
Make sure your screenplay tells an emotional journey for your hero. That emotional journey starts out in one state in the beginning, then completely flips to the opposite by the end.
In between, the hero must gradually change by first seeing a new way to live, and then feeling the pain of not changing. This combination of seeing and feeling gradually convinces the hero to change and achieve his or her emotional dream in the end.
Make sure your screenplay is an emotional one, not just a physical struggle. Then you’ll likely create a far more compelling story as a result.