Most people start a screenplay with a log line that summarizes the physical action in the story. The log line for “Die Hard” might be “One man has to fight an army of terrorists alone in a skyscraper.” The log line for “Alien” might be “A starship crew in the future must battle an unstoppable monster aboard their ship.”
The log line captures attention with intriguing action. However, action alone is a recipe for failure. Just look at all those horrible sequels like “Jaws 4,” “Die Hard 2,” or “Sister Act 2” that adds more action while stripping away the emotional element that made the original story so appealing.
Once you’ve capture the main action in a log line, the next step isn’t to flesh out your plot, but to define the emotional goal behind that log line. In other words, what does the hero need to learn to become a better person in the end? That’s essentially your story’s theme.
Start with a log line to clarify the physical action, then identify the emotional goal or theme that can work with the log line. The best themes stem directly from a consequence of the physical action of the log line.
For example, there’s a movie called “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things,” which is about a teenage boy trapped in a time loop and forced to relive the same day over and over again. He keeps trying to find a girl he can love, but constantly fails.
Then one day, he spots a girl he’s never seen before roaming around the town. Unlike the other people in his life who keep repeating the same actions over and over again, this girl roams freely. That’s when the teenage boy realizes this girl is also trapped in the time loop with him.
Naturally he wants to get to know her and eventually becomes friends with her. However, he can’t get her to fall in love with him because of her secret that she won’t tell him. Depressed, the teenage boy now feels life is empty without this girl, but then he gradually learns that he’s been ignoring the people in his life (his mother, father, and sister).
Once he starts caring about these people, he realizes how much of life he’s really missed by only thinking of himself. The emotional element of this movie stems from the girl because she enjoys being stuck in a time loop since it’s the last day of her own mother’s life. Thus this last day gives her time to sped with her dying mother. Until she’s ready to let go of her mother ad risk never seeing her again, she can’t escape the time loop.
So the story of two teenagers caught in a time loop is the physical goal. The emotional goal is that the teenage boy needs to realize that the people already in his life are worth living with and the teenage girl needs to finally accept her mother’s death and let her go.
Without this emotional element, the physical story of a time loop may be interesting, but ultimately it’s meaningless. Adding the emotional story makes the entire story far more engaging as a result. Because the emotional goal involves letting people go and learning to love the people around you, it ties in directly with the physical goal, making it a far stronger story as a result.
No story, no matter how exciting the physical goal, can hold our attention for long. All great stories have a compelling emotional element that makes the physical goal (plot) meaningful. Strip away that meaning and you have nothing but the formula for a bad sequel.