Every story consists of two stories that correspond to the hero’s physical goal and the hero’s emotional dream. The hero’s physical goal is what the story seems to be about. In “Rocky,” the story seems to be about fighting a heavyweight boxing championship, but the real story is about proving to himself and the rest of the world that he’s not a loser.
In “Titanic,” the physical goal might seem to be escaping from a sinking ocean liner, but the real emotional dream is to learn to stand up for yourself and live your own life. In “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri,” the physical goal might be to get the police to find the killer of the hero’s daughter by shaming them with billboards, but the emotional dream is to deal with the mistake of fighting with her daughter right before her daughter was killed.
The physical goal, what the story seems to be about, comes from the villain. “Die Hard” seems to be about fighting terrorists alone (the villain), but what it’s really about is a man learning to overcome his arrogance and get back with his wife (emotional dream). Bad sequels often strip away the emotional dream and focus on strengthening the physical goal, which is why you get so many bad “Die Hard” sequels along with lousy sequels for other types of movies as well (“Legally Blonde 2,” “Miss Congeniality 2,” “Jaws 4,” “Babe: Pig in the City,” and “Terminator 3”).
The emotional dream, what the story is really about, comes from the hero trying to overcome a haunted past or recent troubles. In “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri,” the hero is trying to overcome his fight with her daughter when she yelled that she hoped her daughter would get raped, and then her daughter does get raped and killed. In “La La Land,” the hero gets frustrated trying to break into acting over and over again until she finally gives up.
When thinking of your story, think first of what will attract an audience. A lone man fighting terrorists in a skyscraper? (“Die Hard”) That sounds appealing. A down and out boxer given a chance to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world? (“Rocky”) That sounds interesting. A ditzy blonde trying to go to Harvard law school (“Legally Blonde”) That sounds like a funny idea.
Once you’ve defined your hero’s physical goal that will likely appeal to an audience, next focus on your hero’s emotional dream, and that comes from dealing with the past or a recent problem. In “Die Hard,” the hero has broken up with his wife in the past and now wants to get back with her again. In “Legally Blonde,” the hero is dumped early in the story by her boyfriend and now she wants to win him back.
So think of a past that your hero must overcome, or a recent, traumatic event that your hero experiences early in your story that forces him or her to overcome this trauma. That’s your hero’s emotional dream and that’s what your story is really all about.