Every hero wants a physical goal that he or she can see, but in reality, they need to achieve an emotional goal that they often cannot see initially.
To get the physical goal, the hero typically deceives others. Now the tension throughout the bulk of the story is how long can the hero get away with this deception and what will happen when the deception is finally revealed?
In “Yesterday,” a man wakes up in a world where The Beatles and all their songs never existed. From memory, he plays songs from The Beatles and becomes a popular musician, which is what he wanted to achieve as a struggling musician.
However, what he really needs isn’t to become a famous musician, but to fall in love with his manager who has helped him for years, hoping he would notice her.
What creates tension in a story is when the hero’s physical goal pulls him or her farther away from the hero’s emotional goal. In “Yesterday,” the more famous the hero gets, the more distant he gets from the woman who truly loves him, creating tension.
The only way the hero can achieve his emotional goal is to get rid of the deception. To do this takes a huge act of bravery since the hero is literally throwing away his or her physical goal for a chance to get the emotional goal.
“Tootsie” is another movie that highlights this deception. The hero is a man who pretends to be a woman and lands a role on a popular soap opera. The more famous he gets as a woman actress, the harder it is for him to fall in love with another actress on the soap opera. The only way he can even have a chance to achieve his emotional goal is to give up his deception and his physical goal.
Almost every movie involves deception by the hero but in less blatant ways. In “Die Hard,” the hero hides his identity from the villain to keep the villain from hurting his wife. In “Star Wars,” Luke is still a farm boy but with Obi-wan, he hangs out in a bar filled with tough characters even though he’s not one of them.
In “Legally Blonde,” the hero is trying to act like she belongs in law school with everyone else when it’s clear that she doesn’t. When writing your own screenplay, think of ways your hero can deceive others to achieve a physical goal, which will also pull the hero away from his or her emotional goal at the same time, creating tension.
Not every story may have a clear cut act of deception from the hero such as “The Proposal” (where the hero pretends to be engaged to an American to avoid being deported) or “Toy Story 4” (where the hero has to pretend to be an inanimate toy around people).
However, look for ways your hero can deceive others to achieve a physical goal while getting further away from achieving his or her emotional goal. Once you have that tension as part of your story, you’ll likely have a stronger screenplay as a result.