Once we know what the visual, physical story might be, we need to know what emotional dream the hero wants to achieve. Whatever the visual, physical story might be, it must make the hero’s emotional dream as difficult to achieve as possible.
When we know what the hero’s emotional dream is, we next need to know why the hero wants to achieve that dream. In other words, what’s the motivation? That motivation always comes from the haunted past; the hero made a mistake or suffered unfairly in the past and needs to redeem him or herself.
Finally when we know the visual, physical story, the hero’s emotional dream, and the hero’s motivation, we can define how the hero pursues that emotional dream. How the hero takes action and resolves problems is based solely on the theme, and all action blocking the hero must also be based on the theme.
For example, the theme in a romantic comedy like “When Harry Met Sally” is that it’s not possible for men and women to be just friends. Thus all action is based on either showing how men and women can be friends or how they cannot be just friends. Knowing how the theme limits the type of action the characters must face keeps you from writing action scenes that are totally irrelevant to the theme such as having a serial killer trying to kill one of the characters in one scene and then having a stranger threaten to seduce and pull a character away from another in a different scene. Wildly different types of action that fail to serve the same purpose creates a confused and disjointed story.
The theme defines the following:
- The point or lesson of your entire story, which defines…
- The type of problems the characters face and the type of action the characters take to resolve their problems, which defines…
- Who the characters are and how they change over the course of the story.
In a movie like “Eighth Grade,” the theme is that people must learn about life on their own but with the help of others. Thus the entire story revolves around a girl in eighth grade trying to deal with peer pressure, friendship, sex, and uncertainty about life while in eighth grade. She faces problems such as being stuck in a car with a high school boy who tries to “playfully” convince her to take off her clothes, which makes her uncomfortable and scared. The action she takes remains consistent with the theme in that she finally stands up for herself and asks to be taken home. She doesn’t shoot the older high school boy, nor does he physically attack her. When all problems and characters remain focused on enhancing the theme, each scene contributes to the overall story rather than just trying to be entertaining or interesting on its own.
That’s a quality of bad movies. They lack a strong theme so the action exists solely for the sake of action in that moment. Because there’s no sense of focus on a single theme, all this action simply feels pointless because it fails to support a single theme for the overall story.
A strong theme defines both what types of problems your hero must face and how your hero reacts to those problems:
- In Act I, the hero acts in the exact opposite of the theme in solving problems, which creates an unhappy life.
- In Act IIa, the hero learns about the theme and starts changing.
- In Act IIb, the hero learns that his or her old way of thinking no longer works (the opposite of the theme) but doesn’t fully embrace the theme, creating a crisis.
- In Act III, the hero embraces the theme, defeats the villain, and achieves an emotional dream as a result.
For example, the theme in “Witness” is that there are other ways to solve problems than violence:
- Act I, the hero, a policeman, uses violence to solve problems.
- In Act IIa, the hero lives among the Amish and sees how they live without violence.
- In Act IIb, the hero learns that violence doesn’t solve his problems after he attacks someone and attracts the attention of the villain.
- In Act III, the hero embraces non-violence and defeats the villain.
The theme defines how the hero sees the world and how the hero needs to change. Since the theme in “Witness” is that there are other ways to solve problems than through violence, the hero constantly reacts to problems by either using violence or restraining from doing so. The problems the hero keeps facing force him to challenge the theme of non-violence. The theme keeps your story consistent by forcing all characters to either act by embracing the theme or by doing the opposite of the theme. There are no problems not related to violence and there are no character reactions that don’t challenge the idea of violence vs. non-violence.
In “Terminator 2,” the theme is that killing is wrong. Thus every character either relies on killing to solve problems (the villain) or realizes that they can’t solve their problems by killing (Sarah Connors when she can’t kill the inventor of SkyNet).
In “Coco,” the theme is that family is important. Thus every character either turns away from family by being selfish (the villain) or embraces their family. All problems threaten family somehow and the way all characters respond to problems is limited to being selfish or working with family. The hero gradually shifts from thinking he needs to be selfish to achieve his goal of playing music, to realizing playing music can bring his family together.
Stories without a theme are literally aimless. Without a theme guiding and focusing your characters’ actions, your characters can take different actions that don’t seem unified, creating a chaotic and confusing story.
First, you need a visually interesting story that implies conflict and something unusual. Without a visually interesting story that’s different, nobody will care about your story at all.
Second, you need to define an emotional dream for your hero to pursue. Without an emotional dream for your hero to pursue, even the best story idea can’t hold an audience’s interest.
Third, you need to create a haunted past that motivates your hero’s actions. Without a haunted past, we won’t root for the hero or care as the hero gets closer to achieving the emotional dream in the end.
Fourth, you need to define a theme that focuses the way your characters respond. Without a theme, your characters, obstacles, and solutions to overcoming problems won’t be consistent, which will create a disjointed story.
Bad stories stop at just defining a visually interesting conflict with a compelling idea. Good stories define all four layers of a story so the visual conflict grabs your attention, the hero’s emotional dream provides the real story, the haunted past provides the hero’s motivation, and the theme defines the way all characters react to problems.
Stories must be more than just a good idea. As long as you know this, you can start creating richer stories that feel focused and unified, creating an emotionally satisfying experience for the audience and the hero in the end.