Exciting and memorable stories don’t have the most action, but the greatest emotional appeal. To create a story with a strong emotional core, identify a dominant belief that your story presents in one sentence.
- “Thelma and Louise” — Women live in a male-dominated world.
- “Titanic” — Don’t let others define your life.
- “Miss Congeniality” — Women can be both feminine and tough.
- “Terminator 2” — Killing is wrong.
- “A Clockwork Orange” — Without freedom of choice, we cease to be human.
- “Harold and Maude” — Death is part of life.
- “Rocky” — As long as you do your best, you’re a winner.
- “Ratatouille” — You can achieve your dream no matter who you are.
- “Frozen” — Love is the strongest power of all.
Take your story’s emotional core and find its negative and positive aspect. The negative aspect of your story’s emotional core defines where your hero starts in your story. The positive aspect of your story’s emotional core defines where your hero ends.
This emotional core is your story’s theme. If your theme is “Women live in a male-dominated world,” then in the beginning, your hero suffers in a male-dominated world. By the end, your hero is free of the male-dominated world. That’s the basic change the hero undergoes in “Thelma and Louise.”
Once you know the beginning emotional state of your hero (trapped in a male-dominated world) and the ending emotional state of your hero (free of a male-dominated world), the bulk of your story must guide the hero (and the audience) into changing from the beginning to the end.
This emotional change is what makes stories great, not endless amounts of action, gun fire, and explosions.
When your story shows a hero changing to embrace your story’s theme, you emotionally move an audience as well. “Titanic” wasn’t about a sinking ocean liner as much as it was about a woman learning to live life on her own terms. Nobody saw “Titanic” multiple times just to watch a ship sink. Everyone saw “Titanic” multiple times to experience the emotional satisfaction of watching a hero change. In the process of the hero changing, the audience experiences that same emotional change as well.
Ultimately, the best stories are about emotion, not physical action. Why do people watch a favorite movie that they’ve already seen before? You don’t want to see the action. You want to relive the emotional state of the story. The best stories tap into the most basic human emotions: love, anger, survival, fear, triumph, tragedy, humor, etc. Movie genres are really emotional categories:
- Love — romances
- Anger — action thrillers
- Survival — disaster stories
- Fear — horror
- Triumph/Tragedy — drama
- Humor — comedy
A story’s theme defines the following:
- Your hero’s dead end life in the beginning<
- Your hero’s fatal flaw that keeps him/her in a dead end life
- The lesson your hero must learn to overcome his/her fatal flaw
- Your hero’s change in the end
Once you’ve identified your story’s emotional core (theme), you’ll automatically know how your hero must start, change, and end. That gives your story an immediate structure. With a solid foundation to build on, you can add the plot details later. Two stories can share the same theme (“Rocky” and “The Karate Kid”) but the plot is what makes each story unique. However, without a solid theme, you’ll risk adding plot details that don’t support your theme, and then you’ll just wind up with an unfocused and mediocre story at best.
So start with a theme. Once you know what you want to say, then you can decide how you want to say it.