Every story is about emotional change. If a story lacks emotional change, it will likely be dull and boring. People aren’t watching “The Spy Who Dumped Me” multiple times but they will watch movies like “Titanic” or “Forrest Gump” multiple times. That’s because bad movies focus only on action while great movies focus on action plus a stirring emotional story.
So now the big question is how do you create an emotional story? Just start with these key emotional goals:
- To survive
- To be admired
- To reach a goal
- To find love
- To take care of somebody
Man vs. nature stories are typically survival stories such as “127 Hours” where a man is trapped in a canyon and must cut his own arm off after getting his arm trapped by a boulder.
To be admired is a universal trait that everyone can understand. “Rocky” is about a down and out boxer who wants to prove to himself and the world that he’s not a bum.
To reach a goal involves striving for something great. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” a little girl dreams of competing in a beauty pageant. That’s her dream and because it appears so difficult for her to achieve, we’re rooting for her to make it.
To find love is the basis for every romance such as “Sleepless in Seattle” or “The Proposal.” Everyone wants to find love so we want to see other people find it too.
To take care of somebody plays off maternal instincts in caring for others. “Brawl in Cell Block 99” is about a man in prison who sacrifices his own life so his unborn daughter can live after her mother has been kidnapped and the villain threatens to abort the baby.
Emotional stories start with universal traits that every person can understand: survival, to be admired/respected, to reach a goal, to find love, or to care for somebody. Often times movies combine these emotional goals but there’s always a single, dominant emotional goal that drives the hero.
In “Die Hard,” the main emotional goal is to find love. John McClane’s sole goal at the beginning of the story is to get back with his wife. When the terrorists show up, his secondary emotional goal is survival.
In “Star Wars,” the main emotional goal is to achieve a goal. In this case, Luke is bored and longs for an adventure. That’s his goal and he gets it, but he also wants to survive against Darth Vader’s storm troopers while also protecting Princess Leia.
In “The Karate Kid,” the hero initially just wants to be accepted in his new neighborhood. In the end, he wins over the villain who hands him a trophy.
Pick any of the above emotional goals for the hero in your screenplay. Then layer on additional emotional goals but always keep in mind the original emotional goal the hero wants to achieve. When you start with a strong emotional goal for your hero, you’ll have a much better chance of writing a strong screenplay as well.