The best stories show the hero’s emotional change from a dead end life to a happier, more promising life because the hero changed. To create this, you need to define two aspects of your hero:
- The hero’s past mistakes
- The hero’s need to change
Every good hero is flawed right from the start. The problem isn’t just that the hero has a problem from the plot, but that the hero has an unsolved emotional problem right from the start. In Act I, your screenplay must draw out and explain the hero’s unsolved emotional problem, which causes problems for the hero although the hero doesn’t even know it.
In “La La Land,” the hero is an aspiring actress who doesn’t believe in herself. This lack of belief in herself keeps her from achieving her dream. Although she keeps going out on auditions, she gets discouraged until eventually she stages a one-person play to a largely empty theater. That’s when she gives up and believes she’ll never succeed.
What this hero needs is to believe in herself. Through her mentor (a musician who wants to run his own jazz nightclub), she finally learns to believe in herself and have the guts to perform in a one-person play. When she gives up her dreams and goes back home, her mentor drives to her house to pick her up and take her to an audition. At this audition, the hero finally believes in herself and delivers a singing performance that finally helps her land an audition that eventually turns her into a star.
The key to the hero’s emotional change is that the hero must be damaged emotionally before the story even begins. Gradually we learn what the problem is with the hero and then the bulk of Act II constantly forces the hero to keep confronting his or her painful past until it finally breaks the hero down. Only when he hero breaks down completely and admits his or her real emotional need can the hero change. When the hero changes, that’s the emotional breakthrough that creates a satisfying ending.
“Dr. Strange” is about a hero who’s an arrogant doctor who thinks he knows everything. When he loses the use of his hands, he desperately searches for a cure and that’s when he realizes he doesn’t know everything, especially when he’s confronted by a metaphysical world. Only until he finally embraces the metaphysical world and accepts his own ignorance of the world around him does he finally become a better person, thus emotionally changing to a satisfying conclusion.
If “Dr. Strange” had simply ended with lots of special effects, that ending would have been visually stunning but emotionally boring. By having the hero change, “Dr. Strange” ends on a far more fulfilling ending.
Here’s how to define an emotional change in your hero. First, think of the past that hurt or damaged the hero somehow. This painful past warps the hero’ s life in the present (Act I). You must constantly show how the hero’s painful past keeps the hero from getting what he or she wants. In “Dr. Strange,” the hero’s arrogance drives away his girlfriend. In “La La Land,” the hero’s inability to believe in herself keeps her from achieving the success she longs for.
Once you have a painful past for your hero that gradually gets revealed in Act I, make sure that painful past causes problems for the hero in Act I. By the end of Act I, we should known what the hero needs to learn.
Now Act II is all about the hero constantly learning new ways to become a better person and get what he or she needs. Act IIa (the first half of Act II) is where the hero learns new skills. Act IIb (the second half of Act II) is where the hero learns that his or her old way of life no longer works until it drives the hero to a rock bottom situation.
Act III is where the hero finally gives up the painful past and changes. By changing, the hero can slowly become a better person and that’s far more interesting than simply seeing lots of action and special effects.