Every story is about the hero’s change. To define that change, your hero needs to start with a lie that he or she believes in. This belief is what puts the hero in a dead end situation in the beginning of the story. Then the hero must eventually learn to confront this lie and change into a better person. By changing, the hero is finally able to defeat the villain and the story ends with a satisfying emotional ending.
Every story is both an internal struggle and an external struggle. Where most stories go wrong is that they lack an internal struggle. When you watch pointless action like in a bad James Bond movie, you’re simply seeing more creative car crashes, explosions and gunfire, but no emotional sense of satisfaction. After a while, even the biggest explosion will be boring if there’s no emotional meaning behind all this frantic action.
To define an internal struggle, start with the hero’s lie like this:
- The hero believes in a lie (which traps the hero in a dead end situation)
- The hero learns to change in a new world, but fails to acknowledge this lie
- The hero starts changing and eventually loses everything to confront admit this lie
- Freed from this lie, the hero can now change and defeat the villain
In “Star Wars,” Luke’s lie is his belief that he can’t live his own life. Instead, he must stay on his uncle’s farm despite his own desire to live an adventurous life.
- Luke doesn’t trust himself to live his own life
- By following Obi-wan, Luke learns about a new world but is still more passive than active
- Luke starts changing by taking charge to rescue Princess Leia, but eventually sees Darth Vader kill Obi-wan
- Still unsure of himself, Luke listens to Obi-wan and trusts himself, and thus defeats the Death Star and Darth Vader
In “La La Land,” Mia, the hero, is an actress struggling to succeed in Hollywood. Her big lie is that she doesn’t believe she has talent.
- Mia is stuck working a dead end job and getting turned down for auditions while secretly believing she can’t succeed
- With the help of jazz musician, Sebastian, Mia reconnects with her passion for acting
- Sebastian convinces Mia to write and perform in a one-woman play that forces Mia to give up, believing her lie that she can’t succeed
- Sebastian drives Mia back to LA for an important audition that she got from someone who saw her one-woman play, and Mia sings about her aunt who inspired her to go into acting, and she finally succeeds in Hollywood
In “The Edge of Seventeen,” Nadine, a seventeen-year old girl, is convinced her life is horrible.
- Nadine can only focus on how horrible her life is both present and past
- Nadine breaks off her friendship with her best friend and starts a relationship with a boy who likes her
- Nadine learns how her behavior has negatively affected the lives of those around her, and she’s forced to confront how her behavior hurts others
- Nadine learns to give up her belief that life sucks, and she makes up with her best friend and finds hope and love with a boyfriend
The pattern of change in the hero follows the four Acts of a screenplay:
- Act I — The hero has a lie and simultaneously desires a goal yet is held back from that goal by a lie he or she believes
- Act IIa — The hero enters a new, unfamiliar world and life gets better, but the hero still believes in a lie
- Act IIb — The hero’s life starts to fall apart until the hero is forced to confront and admit the lie to him or herself
- Act III — The hero starts to lose but finally frees him or herself from the lie, allowing the hero to change and defeat the villain
In your own screenplay, define the lie that your hero holds. That lie is the opposite of your theme and traps your hero in a dead end life. Only at the end of Act IIb when the hero finally admits to him or herself about their lie can they truly change and become a better person.
The hero’s lie forms the basis for change, and change is the foundation of every story. Without emotional change, even the most action-packed story will fall flat. Think of bad movies like “Prometheus,” “Batman vs. Superman,” or “Suicide Squad.” When the hero changes into a better person, the audience experiences that same emotion. When the hero fails to change, the audience fails to be emotionally moved, and that means the story fails altogether.