The biggest mistake many movies make is that they focus solely on the action, yet that’s the least satisfying part of any story. Every story is really about a hero achieving an emotional goal, not a physical goal. The purpose of the physical goal is to give the hero a path to achieving the emotional goal, but the emotional goal is the key.
Think of every “Die Hard” action clone and you’ll likely see a flat, dull story that’s heavy on action, explosions, gunfire, and fighting, but weak and thin on emotional substance. Yet in the original “Die Hard,” the real goal of the hero wasn’t to defeat the terrorists but to get back with his wife.
To get back with his wife, the hero had to change and admit that he was the reason why they broke up in the first place. So the hero really goes through four distinct changes:
- First, the hero has clear physical goal, but also has a far less obvious emotional goal. However the reason the hero doesn’t yet have the emotional goal is because he or she hasn’t learned to change yet.
- Second, the hero achieves the physical goal, but realizes that achieving the physical goal never satisfies the emotional goal that he or she never recognized before.
- Third, the hero stubbornly tries to achieve the emotional goal without changing, and that fails horribly.
- Fourth, the hero finally understands that he or she needs to change. When that happens, the hero can finally change and achieve the emotional goal that has been out of reach solely because the hero had been unwilling or unable to change.
The emotional goal is subtle because it’s never what’s highlighted in a story. In “Star Wars,” the big finale occurs when Luke blows up the Death Star, but that’s not the real goal. The real goal is for Luke to learn to trust himself and by doing so, he can achieve the physical goal of blowing up the Death Star. Just blowing up the Death Star is an empty, physical goal.
Likewise in “Up,” the hero doesn’t just defeat the villain physically. He learns to embrace life again.
When plotting out your own story, don’t think of the details. Instead, focus on both the physical goal the hero needs to achieve (which is typically visual in nature such as blowing up the Death Star) and think also of the emotional goal your hero needs.
This emotional goal is tied directly to your story’s theme. In “Star Wars,” the main theme is to trust the Force. That also means trust yourself, which Luke needs to learn before he can triumph in the end.
In “Die Hard,” the hero really needs to learn how to be less arrogant and he learns that by realizing how much he actually loves his wife, especially when he might lose her forever because of the terrorists.
Ultimately, every story is about the hero overcoming him or herself and changing to become a better person.
So think of your hero’s emotional goals first, which is related to your theme. Then think about the physical goals second. If you focus on the physical goal too soon, you’ll likely wind up with a physically interesting story that’s emotionally empty and ultimately disappointing.