Emotional Structure

There’s a debate between character-drive stories and plot-driven stories. Generally, character-driven stories create classics while plot-driven stories just create a lot of action that’s completely forgettable five seconds after you leave the theater. Which type of movie do you want to create?

I’m reading an interesting book called “Emotional Structure” by Peter Dunne. What makes this book great is that it focuses less on the physical structure of a screenplay, such as Act breaks, and more on the emotional development of your characters.

Emotional change in a character is what makes a movie great. Think of the first “Die Hard” movie where Bruce Willis’s character changed over time. Now think of all those bad “Die Hard” sequels where the emphasis was just on action (plot-driven) and less on character development and change. That’s what makes most sequels pale imitations in that they drain the character development out of the story and replace it with mindless action.

Besides laying out the structure of your story for your plot, you also need to lay out the change in your character. In Act I, your character is stuck in a dead end life, but part of what’s keeping your character in this dead end life is his (or her) own fear.

In “Star Wars,” Luke could leave his uncle’s farm at any time, but his fears of the outside universe as well as his desire to help his aunt and uncle are keeping him there. Luke does want to leave, but his actions show that leaving is less important than staying, and the fact that he’s still on the farm means that Luke really wants to stay on the farm.

Even later in “Star Wars,” Luke tells Obiwan-Konobi that he can’t leave his aunt and uncle. He may want to leave, but he does feel loyalty to them.

That’s the dead end that your hero must face in Act I. Somehow your hero has gotten himself stuck in a dead end life through is own making, and although he has desires for a better life, he hasn’t taken a step towards that better life yet. That’s where Plot Point I, the end of Act I, comes along and literally forces the hero to make a decision and the hero choses to escape into another world.

In your own story, who is your hero? How is your hero stuck in a dead end life? More importantly, what fear is keeping your hero stuck? It’s this fear that your hero needs to overcome. Something needs to arrive to knock your hero out of his dead end life and into a new world.

In “WALL-E,” WALL-E’s love for Eve is what makes him decide to hang on to the rocket as it blasts off, carrying Eve away.

In “Rocky,” it’s Apollo Creed’s decision to pick Rocky to fight for the championship.

In “Ratatouille,” it’s when Remy the rat gets separated from his family and winds up in Paris all alone.

Something must abruptly knock your hero’s world off balance, but whatever this is, it has to play against your hero’s secret desire to stay stuck because of fear.

In “Star Wars,” Luke wants to leave the farm, but he also wants to stay and helps his aunt and uncle. Based on this fear, the only obvious Plot Point at the end of Act I is one where Luke gets the opportunity to leave his farm.

For your own story, you know your hero, but do you know what dead end life your hero has put himself in? Once you know that, you’ll know the most effective way to get your hero out of his dead end life, and that’s what you’ll show in the rest of your story.

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Story Structure

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