A story is about a hero who changes emotionally by pursuing a physical goal. In many cases, the hero has an emotional dream but no idea how to achieve it. In “Titanic,” Rose wants to escape her dead end life but has no idea how.
It’s not until Jack comes into her life that Rose realizes she has a way out that doesn’t involve either killing herself or submitting to a marriage to a man she doesn’t love. What makes “Titanic” interesting isn’t the idea of Rose trying to survive a sinking ocean liner, but in Rose trying to get a better life for herself, and to do that, she needs to help Jack.
Every story is never about the physical goal so much as it’s about the emotional dream, and the conflicts must make achieving that emotional dream as tough as possible for the hero.
In “WALL-E,” the emotional dream is to find someone to love. Thus all the conflict that WALL-E faces constantly threatens to keep him from finding someone to love. Initially, his main problem is that he’s alone on an abandoned planet.
Next, he finally finds Eve who he can love, but Eve is hostile and nearly blows WALL-E’s head off.
After WALL-E finally befriends Eve, the next problem is that Eve’s programming causes her to snatch WALL-E’s plant away and go into hibernation until a rocket ship comes back to retrieve her.
When the rocket ship takes Eve, that threatens WALL-E’s chance at finding love, so he stows away on the rocket ship. Once on the rocket ship, he has to chase after Eve.
As you can see, WALL-E’s obstacles always center around keeping him from finding love. That’s it. When a story’s conflict focuses solely on a single goal, that creates a tightly focused story.
So the key to creating a great story is knowing your hero’s emotional dream. Once you know what your hero wants, then make sure all conflict keeps your hero from getting that. No matter what physical conflict appears, it will create a tightly focused story as long as it keeps the hero from achieving that emotional dream.
Watch great movies and you’ll notice that all conflict works against the hero from achieving an emotional dream. Watch bad or mediocre movies and you may notice some conflict has nothing to do with the hero’s emotional dream, which weakens the overall story and focus.
So one story, one problem. It’s that simple.