Throughout the story, the hero gradually changes. In Act I, the hero starts changing from someone trapped in a dead end life of their own making to someone pursuing a physical goal (Symbol of Hope) that promises to give the hero an emotional dream. The hero hasn’t changed emotionally yet, but is in the process of learning how to change.
In Act IIa, the hero enters a new world and initially feels lost but gradually masters this new world and achieves a physical goal (Symbol of Hope) but ultimately fails to achieve the initial emotional dream. The hero has seen the benefits of changing but hasn’t yet changed.
In Act IIb, the hero starts changing emotionally until finally hitting a rock bottom moment where all appears lost. That’s where the hero must face facts and admit to him or herself about the character flaw that the hero still clings to (which likely caused all the problems in the first place).
In “Finding Nemo,” this character flaw is the father fish (Marlin) still being overly protective of his son (Nemo).
In “Die Hard,” this character flaw is the hero finally admitting to himself that he was to blame for breaking up his marriage.
In Act III, the hero gets inspiration from a mentor to try once more. That’s when the hero enters the villain’s lair where the villain is strongest and where the villain is on the verge of success.
First, the hero must face and defeat the villain’s henchman, who is usually powerful. To defeat this henchman, the hero does not need to change emotionally. Instead, he or she can simply stay the same.
In “Die Hard,” the hero defeats the main henchman who has sworn to kill the hero because the hero killed his brother. The hero defeats this henchman through brute force.
In “Star Wars,” TIE fighters hit but fail to cripple Luke’s X-wing fighter. Luke has survived but hasn’t been forced to change yet.
After defeating the henchman, the hero must then face the villain. Initially, the hero appears on the verge of winning without having to change. Then the villain either cheats or uses his or her massive advantage to cripple the hero. That’s when the hero must finally change to defeat the villain.
This is the point where the hero must finally let go of his or her character flaw that represents the old way of life and embrace the new, not knowing if this new way of life will even work or not.
In “Finding Nemo,” Marlin is on the verge of losing his son to a massive net by a commercial fisherman. Although he wants to save his son by having Nemo slip through the net, this will still doom all the fish caught in the net. Instead, Marlin decides to trust that his son knows what he’s doing that will save all the fish. That’s when Nemo tells all the fish to swim down and collectively, they pull the net apart, which allows them all to break free.
Often in this moment of doubt, the hero relies on help from an ally. In “Star Wars,” Hans Solo storms back to shoot Darth Vader’s escorts away so Luke can get a clear shot at the Death Star.
In “Legally Blonde,” the hero’s hairdresser shows up in court to visibly support the hero as she argues her first law case.
If an ally helps the hero, the hero ultimately has to make that decision to let go of the past and embrace the new way of life embodied by the story’s theme. This letting go shows that the hero has changed emotionally for good.
In “Thelma and Louise,” the two women are trapped at the edge of a cliff with armed police behind them. That’s when they decide that they can never go back to their old way of life, being controlled by men. Instead, they decided to drive off the edge of the cliff, which represents freedom and shows that they finally emotionally changed.
In your own story, identify your story’s theme and that shows you the hero’s emotional change. If the theme is that “lying is wrong” as in “Liar Liar,” the hero starts Act I embracing the opposite of the theme. By the end of Act III, the hero embraces the theme.
In Act IIa, the hero first starts seeing how to change by learning from a mentor and seeing his or her own reflection back in the shape of an ally, who suffers a similar problem as the hero.
In Act IIb, the hero starts changing but hits rock bottom to force him or her to admit the character flaw that’s really holding the hero back from an emotional dream.
So the ultimate change of the hero emotionally looks like this:
- Act I — The hero lives in a dead end world of his or her own making, then pursues a physical goal that promises a way to achieve an emotional dream.
- Act IIa — The hero needs the help of an ally who’s a mirror image with similar character flaws. Then hero learns from a mentor about who he or she can become, which foreshadows the eventual change in the hero at the end.
- Act IIb — The hero starts changing emotionally, but hits a rock bottom moment where he or she finally sees the character flaw that’s been keeping the hero from an initial emotional dream.
- Act III — The hero nearly loses to the villain but finally embraces the story’s theme and uses a lesson from the mentor to change and defeat the villain.
The arc of emotional change can be condensed in Act I and Act III where Act I poses an emotional dream and Act III answers whether the hero achieved that emotional dream or not.
In “Back to the Future,” the hero’s initial emotional dream is to believe in himself. By the end, he does believe in himself and gets a better family as a result of changing time.
In “Rocky,” the hero’s initial dream is to prove he’s not a bum. By the end, he gets to prove to the world on national TV that he’s not a bum.
In “Beauty and the beast,” the hero’s initial dream is to find an exciting life. By the end, she’s achieved this dream by falling in love with a prince and breaking his curse.
Before writing a screenplay, take time to outline the major steps of how your hero changes emotionally. Failure to do so will result in a flat, dull, and ultimately boring screenplay. Taking the time to outline the hero’s emotional change won’t guarantee a good screenplay, but it will help avoid writing a bad one.