All Stories Are About Emotional Change

Watch a bad movie and one glaring problem is that most of the main characters don’t change emotionally. They often don’t have an emotional goal so they simply go through lots of action that leads nowhere. Yet if you watch a good movie, you’ll see that action is secondary to creating emotional change in the main characters.

If you watch the movies “21 Jump Street” and its sequel “22 Jump Street,” you can see this emotional change occur. In “21 Jump Street,” one main character is a fat, dumpy guy who’s smart but nerdy while the second main character is an athletic but somewhat dumb jock. Since that’s their starting point, their ending point is that they need to change and that’s exactly what happens.

The two characters are assigned as undercover cops to go back to high school. When they get there, they accidentally mix up their identities so the fat, dumpy nerdy character must now take all the athletic activities while the athletic character must now hang out with the smart kids in advanced science courses. This forces both characters to change by overcoming their past and becoming better people at the end.

That’s the basis for all good movies. Start with a flawed character, force them to change, and then end by showing them becoming a better person by changing. In “21 Jump Street,” the fat, dumpy, nerdy kid learns to become more athletic and the athletic character learns to use his brains.

Surprisingly, the sequel “22 Jump Street” continues this emotional change, which makes the sequel a rarity in that it embraces emotional change that most sequels eliminate in favor of more action. In “22 Jump Street, the two main characters now go to college. Here the fat, nerdy kid gets isolated in college from the athletic kids and the athletic character gets to embrace his athletic nature by hanging around in a fraternity where he becomes a star football player, fulfilling his dream.

Yet both characters change because the fat, nerdy character gets a girlfriend and the athletic character learns that being a star in sports isn’t as fulfilling as he thought it might be. Both “21 Jump Street” and “22 Jump Street” work because the main characters go through emotional change and the action exists solely to show how they emotionally change.

Look at most bad sequels and you’ll see that they strip away the emotional change, which makes the action meaningless. There’s a huge emotional change in the hero in “Terminator 2” because the hero (the good Terminator) learns to appreciate life. There’s no emotional change in “Terminator Genisys” so all the action is meaningless and the entire story is a complete waste of time.

In your own screenplay, make sure your main character (and as many other characters as well) change emotionally. We want to see them begin life as an underdog but we also want to see them change and become better people. The journey to becoming a better person is what makes any story intriguing and compelling. Strip away this emotional change and you get a bad movie, as Hollywood’s numerous sequels prove time and time again.

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