Every good story is really about emotional change. Forget about all the special effects and action. Without an underlying emotional story, more car crashes, gunfire, and sex isn’t going to make a bad story any better.
Basically, every hero (and audience member) goes through four stages of emotional change:
In Act I, the hero is stuck in a dead end world of his or her own making. That’s the key right there. The hero has a character flaw, based on a traumatic event from the past, that’s keeping him or her stuck in a dead end life with only a dream but no way of achieving that dream. That’s when the villain interferes and gives the hero a physical goal to pursue, which also leads the hero to meeting a mentor who can help the hero change.
So Act I needs these crucial elements:
- The hero is stuck in a dead end life because of his or her own character flaw
- The hero’s character flaw stems from a traumatic past
- The villain indirectly gives the hero a physical path to change
- The physical path leads the hero to a mentor
The hero needs to overcome his or her character flaw because that’s what’s really keeping the hero stuck. The hero is stuck regardless of any actions taken by the villain.
In “Die Hard,” John McClane was separated from his wife because of his own arrogance and stubbornness. The army of terrorists simply provided a way to him to change.
In “Star Wars,” Luke could have created an exciting life for himself by simply trusting himself, but he was too afraid. Darth Vader had nothing to do with keeping Luke stuck on his uncle’s farm, but Darth Vader provided a way for Luke to get off his uncle’s farm.
The reason the hero has a character flaw is because of a traumatic past. Sometimes that past is shown in the beginning such as in “Cliffhanger” where the hero fails to save a woman who falls to her death. Now he’s traumatized by his failure to save the woman.
Often times the past is hidden and unseen. In “Die Hard,” we never see what causes the breakup between the hero and his wife. In “Star Wars,” we never see Luke separated from his father and getting stuck on his uncle’s farm. In “Avatar,” we never see the hero getting paralyzed from the waist down and stuck in a wheelchair.
In Act I, the hero is stuck with no way out. That’s why the villain inadvertently interferes in the hero’s life and sends a Symbol of Hope, which provides a physical goal for the hero to pursue.
In “WALL-E,” the villain sends Eve to Earth to look for a plant. When WALL-E sees Eve, he suddenly falls in love with her. Earlier we learned he was lonely and looking for love. Suddenly because of the villain, he has a way to find love.
In “Star Wars,” Luke wants an adventure but doesn’t do anything until Darth Vader inadvertently introduces R2D2 into Luke’s life.
In “The Little Mermaid,” Ariel wants to live in the human world but doesn’t know how until the Sea Witch (villain) changes her so she can have legs.
The villain’s whole purpose is to give the hero a physical path to his or her emotional dreams, which are caused by a character flaw that began with a traumatic past.
In the process of pursuing this physical path created by the villain, the hero runs into an unlikely mentor who will help the hero change over time.
In Act IIa, the mentor shows the hero a new way to live despite the hero’s reluctance and resistance.
In Act IIb, the hero starts changing.
In Act III, the hero is finally committed to complete change.
When creating your own screenplay, focus on Act I first because this will define the rest of your story. Notice how bad movies structure Act I. Even if they meet the basic requirements, they create unclear or unbelievable motivation.
In “Mortal Engines,” the hero wants to kill the villain. Later we find out it’s because the villain killed the hero’s mother. Yet this motivation is weakened when we later find out that the villain is the hero’s father, which would have seemed obvious because the villain lived with the mother and helped raise the hero throughout childhood.
Then suddenly the villain decided to kill the mother and the hero, so the hero vowed to kill the villain. Because the hero’s motivation and the villain’s motivation makes little sense, the overall story suffers as a result.
Craft Act I as best you can. Then work on the other three stages of emotional change later.