The biggest reason movies flop is because the screenplay focuses too much on physical action while ignoring the emotional change that makes any story worthwhile. “Jaws” was never about a man-eating shark but about the sheriff trying to redeem himself after opening the beaches and letting a boy get killed by the shark. Now he wants to redeem himself by killing the shark.
Just watch any bad sequel of agar movie like “Jaws” and you’ll see that the entire focus is on action and less on any emotional change. “Jaws 4” is nothing more than a shark attacking people with no emotional story whatsoever. Strip away the emotional story and you have a guaranteed flop.
So do you create an emotional story first and then create a physical story around it? Or should you create a physical story first and then create an emotional story afterwards?
Either way will work but it’s probably easier to create the physical story first since that’s what most people focus on initially. Once you know the physical challenges facing your hero, you can create an emotional story fairly easily.
In “A Quiet Place,” the emotional story is about a little girl trying to win the love of her father after she feels guilty when she accidentally gets her little brother killed. So the real emotional story is about the lack of communication between the girl and her father. Not surprisingly, the premise behind “A Quiet Place” is that the characters can’t talk or they risk attracting monsters that will kill them.
Notice the parallels?
- Physical story – If you talk or make any noise, the monsters will kill you so you have to stay silent.
- Emotional story – A little girl feels she can’t talk to her father and feels unloved as a result.
The physical story always makes the hero’s emotional goal harder to achieve.
In “Die Hard,” the hero’s emotional story is to get back with his wife. Therefore the physical story must make this goal as hard as possible. In this case, it’s keeping the hero separate from his wife with an army of terrorists.
In “Jurassic Park,” the hero’s emotional story is to learn to care for children. Therefore the physical story is that the hero has to protect children from getting killed by rampaging dinosaurs.
In “Titanic,” the hero’s emotional story is to learn to define her own life. Therefore the physical story is that the hero must define her own life on a sinking ocean liner.
In “Green Book,” the hero’s emotional story is to learn to be more caring. The physical story is that he’s forced to care for a black man when he’s racist.
It’s fun and easy to think of the physical story, but don’t stop there. Make your screenplay include an emotional story as well and base that emotional story on the physical story. The physical story must make achieving the emotional story as hard as possible.
Mediocre movies often lack an emotional story altogether or tack on a weak emotional story that isn’t challenged by the physical story. Make sure your physical story is the hardest thing possible for your hero to overcome based on your hero’s emotional story. When the emotional story and the physical story work together, that creates the foundation for a strong overall screenplay.