Although every movie is about a visual, physical goal, the real story is always the emotional goal the hero is pursuing. This emotional goal is what drives the visual, physical goal. If all your story has is action, you’ll wind up with an empty, unemotionally satisfying story. If your story has action and a heart with an emotional goal, then you have a story where the physical action enhances the emotional goal.
The physical goal in “Die Hard” was to defeat an army of terrorists single-handedly, yet watch all those bad “Die Hard” sequels and “Die Hard” clones that simply show the mindless action. “Die Hard” was about fighting terrorists but the reason for fighting the terrorists was so the hero could get back with his wife.
The physical goal of “Jaws” was to fight a shark, but the emotional goal was for the hero to redeem himself after allowing the shark to kill a little boy. Take away the emotional goal and you wind up with all those bad “Jaws” sequels that focus on sharks jumping out of the water to bite a helicopter. More action doesn’t make a more interesting story. An emotional goal makes a story interesting.
The easiest part about coming up with a story is to focus on the visual, physical goal. Once you have that idea, the second step is to come up with a strong emotional goal for your hero to pursue. The emotional goal can be anything but ideally, the physical goal should make achieving the emotional goal as hard as possible. The only way the hero can achieve the emotional goal is by achieving the physical goal.
Some different types of emotional goals are:
- Find love
- Protect someone
- Finding meaning in life
Think of emotional goals as something anyone can understand, even a cave man. If it’s not something simple enough for a cave man to understand, then it’s not simple enough.
Revenge is easy to understand because the hero is unfairly victimized and wants revenge against the villain. Bad karate movies typically use revenge as a motive but “Kill Bill” used the same motive as well.
Finding love is the heart of every romantic comedy where the hero is lonely and looking for true love. “WALL-E” is another example of the hero looking for love and that search for love is what creates the visual, physical story.
Survival is a basic instinct that everyone can understand. This typically occurs in physical stories where the hero must fight against nature such as “127 Hours” where the hero is trapped in a canyon. However, survival also plays a role in disaster or war movies such as “The Towering Inferno” or “Dunkirk.”
Protecting someone is another simple emotion that anyone can understand. In “The Hunger Games,” the hero’s initial goal is to protect her little sister. Then her emotional goal shifts to survival. In “Finding Nemo,” the hero’s goal is to rescue his son and that search for his son defines the visual, physical story.
Finding meaning in life often occurs when the hero doubts his or her own self worth. In “Back to the Future,” the hero doesn’t think he’s good enough to pursue his dreams. Then he’s forced to help his dad pursue his dream. In “Titanic,” the hero thinks she has no future. Then she learns that she can take control of her own life regardless of what other people want her to do.
You can create a visual, physical goal first and then define an emotional goal later, but make sure this emotional goal makes sense with the physical goal. A far better solution is to come up with the emotional goal first and then the pursuit of this emotional goal must be made as hard as possible through the physical goal.
In “Rocky,” the emotional dream is to prove to himself that he’s not a bum. To do that, he has to fight the heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed, and stay on his feet the entire fight, which no other fighter has ever done.
In “Ratatouille,” the hero’s emotional dream is to prove that he’s not meant to eat garbage and live in the streets, even though he’s a rat. To achieve this emotional dream, he must achieve a physical goal of proving he can cook even though he’s a rat that’s not allowed in a restaurant.
So start with the physical goal and then come up with the emotional dream, or come up with the emotional dream and let that help define the physical goal. Either way, you need an emotional goal to go along with the physical goal.
A story without an emotional goal is really no story at all.