Creating a Story in Layers

At the very least, your screenplay needs a hero pursuing a goal. The pursuit of that goal creates conflict that makes your story interesting. The first part of your hero’s goal is a physical goal. That’s something concrete that we can see and understand. For example in “The Martian,” the hero wants to get back to Earth. That’s something clear and easy to understand. In “Avatar,” the hero initially wants to be able to walk again. In “The Hunger Games,” the hero’s goal is to protect her little sister.

A clear, definite, and understandable physical goal for the hero is the first layer of your story. But if you stop there, you’ll likely create a flat, one-dimensional story where other characters pop up for no reason to help or hinder the hero. You need multiple layers to give your overall story depth and originality.

The second layer is to give your hero an emotional flaw that he or she needs to overcome. This emotional flaw will eventually be achieved through the hero’s pursuit of the physical goal. By fighting a more dominant boxer, the hero learns to accept his past and earn recognition for himself in “Creed.” Even though he loses the fight, he gains the respect of the world for fighting as hard as he did against a boxer who was perceived to be superior in every way. The physical goal is simply a means to achieving the emotional goal. When the hero achieves the emotional goal, the physical goal is far less important because it has served its purpose.

In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the hero’s goal is to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. She achieves that goal but loses in spectacular fashion, yet the physical goal of getting wiped out in the beauty pageant is far less important than her emotional goal of achieving her dream and helping her family achiever their own dreams. The second layer of your story is the hero’s emotional goal, and that emotional goal can only be achieved through pursuit of the physical goal.

The third layer is that you need a mentor to help the hero along. This mentor needs a goal of his or her own that parallels the hero’s own goal. In “Creed” the mentor is Rocky who discovers he has cancer and wants to let it run its course and eventually kill him. The hero, Creed, eventually convinces him to fight for his life, which parallels the hero’s own goal of fighting for his life to gain recognition for himself despite his father’s name.

The mentor needs a goal as well to make him or her seem like a real person and not someone who just shows up to help the hero. The mentor may not always live in the end, but the mentor needs to achieve his or her goal through the actions of the hero. So the third layer of your story is giving the mentor a goal.

Yet even three layers may not be enough to create a well-rounded story. You also need an ally who has a goal similar to the hero’s. In “Creed” the hero wants to be his own man and not be recognized for his famous father’s name. His ally is his girlfriend who’s slowly losing her hearing and only has a limited amount of time before she’ll go deaf altogether. Her goal is to live life to its fullest now because she knows she’s on a deadline. While not identical to the hero’s goal, this ally’s goal helps force the hero into taking action now as well.

So the fourth layer of a story is having an ally with a goal.

Finally, the fifth layer of your story is to give your villain a goal that directly opposes your hero while also paralleling the hero’s goal. In “Creed” the villain is a notorious boxer who’s running out of time to fight because he may go to prison soon. (Notice that this running out of time theme appears in both the villain’s and ally’s goals?) This villain also wants to make a name for himself as one of the best boxers in the world so his goal mirrors and directly opposes the hero’s goal.

The fight scenes in “Creed” is far less important than the hero’s stamina and persistence in staying on his feet and giving the champion all he can handle. By doing this, the hero can finally show the world that he’s his own man and not in the boxing ring just because of his famous father’s name.

Sao the five layers of every well-rounded story are:

  • The hero has a physical goal
  • The hero has an emotional goal that can only be achieved through pursuit of the physical goal
  • The hero’s mentor has an emotional goal that can only be achieved through the hero’s actions
  • The hero’s ally has an emotional goal similar to the hero’s emotional goal
  • The villain has a physical goal similar to the hero’s physical goal

Notice that when you create a story that offers five layers of different stories, you can’t help but create a multi-dimensional story rather than a simple, flat, and ultimately boring story that relies on special effects, explosions,a nd gunfire to titillate the audience. Visual effects can keep the audience amused, but emotional story telling will keep them glued to their seats.

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