Every story is about your hero’s emotional growth. Divide every story into four parts and you get the following plot portions of your story:
Part 1 — Introduce the hero and the hero’s problem
Part 2 — The hero enters a new world and achieves initial success
Part 3 — The hero runs into problems and suffers setbacks
Part 4 — The hero confronts the villain and wins (or loses)
That’s how you structure a story from a plot point of view. This is how you structure a story from an emotional growth point of view:
Part 1 — Your hero has suffered some emotional pain in the past that has put him in a dead end life that’s keeping your hero stuck through fear.
Part 2 — Your hero gets a chance to run away from the pain while learning new skills.
Part 3 — Your hero must reluctantly face the pain from the past and suffers a letdown that seems like a new dead end.
Part 4 — Your hero faces his fear and overcomes the ghosts of his past.
Looking at this emotional growth arc in “Silence of the Lambs,” you can see that Jodie Foster is initially haunted by the screaming of the lambs from her childhood. In the beginning, we know our hero is emotionally damaged but we don’t necessarily know how until it comes out later in the story. However, this emotional damage is what has put our hero in the position he’s in. In Jodie Foster’s case, she’s already in the FBI as a way to compensate for the screaming of the lambs in her nightmares.
Through Hannibal, Jodie Foster learns to confront her fears and initially she appears to achieve a False Victory that allows her to ignore confronting his fears.
Later as things fall apart, Jodie Foster must face her greatest fears and confront them. In Act III, she does this emotionally and physically by defeating the serial killer.
What we see is the plot. What motivates the plot is the emotional story underneath. Without this emotional undercurrent, the plot makes no sense. With this emotional undercurrent, the plot suddenly seems much richer and deeper.
That’s the reason you need emotional growth in your hero. That’s what separates “Raiders of the Lost Ark” from “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls.” That’s what separates the original movie like “Die Hard” or “Jaws” from “Die Hard 3” or “Jaws 4.” Take away any emotional growth and you wind up with an empty movie that relies on action, special effects, and meaningless plot twists.
Audiences are pleased when a plot ends, but feel emotionally satisfied when the story ends. In “Rocky,” the plot is to fight Apollo Creed, but the real story is to prove to himself that he’s not a bum. Ironically, Rocky loses to Apollo Creed in the fight, but he succeeds in achieving his story, which is to prove to himself and the world that he’s not a bum.
Essentially, the plot (what you see) provides the path for the hero to solve his or her real problem, which is the story or emotional need. If your hero’s emotional need isn’t clear, the plot is irrelevant. Great movies define the story through the plot. Bad movies just have a plot with no story behind it. Things just happen for the convenience of keeping the story moving. Watch the really bad James Bond movies and you’ll just see a lot of action that has no meaning or relevance other than to keep us entertained through another obstacle.
Now look at your screenplay and decide what the plot is (what happens on the screen) and what the emotional growth is (what motivates your hero). Until you know both of these, your screenplay isn’t complete.