The biggest problem many screenwriters make is that they focus solely on coming up with a creative, compelling, and intriguing story. An original idea will immediately grab someone’s attention, but now the hard part is turning that great idea into a great screenplay.
The key is that the physical plot is what grabs people’s attention but the emotional story is what sticks in their memory. Nobody watches “Titanic”, “Rocky”, or “Star Wars” over and over again because they want to see the action. Instead, they want to experience the emotions that story gives them every time.
So once you craft a compelling plot, you need to back it up with an equally compelling emotional goal that makes that plot worth telling in the first place. Then the hero’s goal isn’t just to achieve a physical milestone but to achieve an emotional sense of completion.
In “The Karate Kid,” the plot is about a young kid fighting his bully in a karate tournament. However, that’s far less exciting than watching a young kid learn to become more confident in himself.
In “Rocky,” the plot is about a down and out boxer who’s given the chance to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world. However, the emotional goal is about watching one man prove to himself and the world that he’s not a bum.
In “Back to the Future,” the plot is about a kid trying to get back to his own time by getting his parents to meet. However, the emotional goal is to learn to become more confident in himself.
Notice that the plot is visual but the emotional goal is more hidden. Yet without this emotional goal, the plot feels much weaker. Just look at bad sequels that enhance the plot visually but sacrifice the emotional goal in the background. “Sister Act 2,” “Babe: Pig in the City,” and all the “Star Wars” prequels fall into this trap of adding more visual action while stripping away any emotion whatsoever.
When you create a compelling plot, make the physical plot symbolize the emotional goal. In “Don’t Breathe,” a girl gets trapped in a house where a blind man is hunting her down. So her emotional goal is escaping her dead end life where she also feels trapped.
In “Titanic,” the hero is trapped on a doomed ocean liner. Not surprisingly, her emotional goal is to get strong enough to live her own life, which means not getting trapped in a marriage to man she doesn’t love.
In many stories, this link between the physical goal and the emotional goal is not so obvious. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the hero wants to achieve her physical goal of performing in a beauty pageant. Yet her emotional goal is to bring her family together. By performing in the beauty pageant despite all obstacles against her, the hero shows all the family members that they too are already a success just by trying to achieve their dreams, and this brings them all together to love and support each other.
Ultimately, the most exciting, physical action will be completely forgettable such as action flicks like “Atomic Blonde” that was heavy on action but non-existent on emotion. Always make sure your hero is pursuing an emotional goal to go along with the physical goal. That will not only give your story more emotional impact, but it will create a far stronger story as well.