Every Physical Battle Tears the Hero Apart Between Two Emotional Extremes

Stories are like roller coasters. They must move forward at all times. Sometimes they pause before a burst of frenetic action that goes up and down. The structure of your story determines what an audience feels.

The two keys to a good story is a clear physical goal to pursue combined with an often hidden, underlying emotional goal as well. The physical goal is what the hero wants. The emotional goal is what the hero needs, which can often be at odds with the physical goal.

In “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” Indiana Jones thinks he must find the Holy Grail (physical goal). However, what he actually needs is his relationship with his father (emotional goal). Only until the end does Indiana Jones give up on trying to get the Holy Grail when he realizes doing so will likely kill him and separate him from his father forever. That’s when he lets the Holy Grail fall from his grasp so he can stay with his father. 

Rarely are the physical goals and the emotional goals identical. Most often the physical goal leads to the emotional goal. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the hero’s physical goal is to compete in a beauty pageant. However, her hidden, underlying emotional goal is to bring her family together. By achieving her physical goal, she helps bring her family together at the same time.

In some cases, the hero actually fails to achieve a physical goal but gets something much better, which is the emotional goal. In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the hero has been struggling to achieve his physical goal of leaving his small town for his entire life. In the end, he completely fails, but only when he realizes his life is infinitely better because he failed and stayed in his small town where he has friends and family who love him. This was his underlying emotional goal that he needed all this time.

When outlining your story, both the physical goal and the emotional goal play crucial roles. Pursuing a physical goal keeps your story moving forward. In pursuit of a physical goal, the hero faces challenges of increasing intensity. However, these aren’t just ordinary challenges, but challenges unique to the hero’s emotional goal.

In “Thelma and Louise,” the hero’s physical goal is to escape for the weekend from their husband. However, that physical goal mirrors her emotional goal which is that the hero needs to free herself from being oppressed by a male-dominated society. 

This is how the hero’s physical goal gets increasingly tougher throughout the story:

  • Must sneak away for the weekend without her husband stopping her
  • Must avoid getting raped by Harlan in the bar parking lot
  • Must escape to Mexico since the police likely won’t believe they killed Harlan in self-defense
  • Must deal with JD, the hitchhiker stealing all of their money
  • Must avoid getting identified by a New Mexico state trooper who stops them
  • Must deal with an annoying, sexist truck driver
  • Must avoid getting killed or caught by the army of police chasing them

Bad stories toss physical problems at a hero that make little sense. In good stories, all of the physical problems the hero faces is directly related to the emotional goal.

Every emotional goal is simply a choice between two extremes. In “Thelma and Louise,” the two extremes are:

  • Stay oppressed by men (self-defeating belief)
  • Find freedom from men (empowering belief)

Notice that every physical challenge forces the hero to constantly face the self-defeating belief (being oppressed by the men in her life) or finding freedom. 

When the hero sneaks away for the weekend without telling her husband, she makes the conscious, deliberate choice to pursue her freedom. 

When she almost gets raped by Harlan, she put herself in a situation where a man could oppress her once more.

When she agrees to flee to Mexico, she makes the choice to pursue freedom again.

When she loses the money to JD, the hitchhiker, she has allowed herself to become oppressed by a man once more.

When she locks the state trooper in the trunk of his car, she makes the choice to be free from a man.

When she’s confronted by an annoying, sexist truck driver, she makes the choice to confront him and let him know his actions are wrong. 

When she’s trapped by an army of police, she makes the decision to keep going and drive off the cliff to freedom.

The physical goal is nothing more than a concrete manifestation of the emotional goal. Each challenge forces the hero to make a choice. Do they allow themselves to drift back to the self-defeating belief, or do they strive to embrace a more empowering belief? The physical challenges always force the hero to make those two choices.

Strip away these two emotional extremes and you’re left with empty, mindless physical action that means nothing. This is why so many sequels flop in comparison to the original story because sequels focus too heavily on more physical action at the expense of an emotional goal. 

“Babe” is about a pig who proves he can herd sheep (physical goal), but the emotional goal is proving that no matter who you are, you can achieve your greatest dream no matter what others may think (emotional goal). Then “Babe 2, Pig in the City” stripped out an emotional goal to focus on more physical action and more talking animals to create a far less engaging and memorable story. 

Watch any bad sequel to see how the sequel lacks much of the emotional goal that made the original movie so fascinating in the first place. Hollywood is littered with failed sequels to study such as “Jaws” vs. “Jaws: The Revenge,” “Legally Blonde” vs. “Legally Blonde 2,” or “Sister Act” vs. “Sister Act 2.” 

Successful sequels offer a new emotional goal that enhances the meaning of the physical goal. “The Terminator” was about a robotic killing machine from the future. “Terminator 2” was about learning to understand the value of a human life. Even though the action in “Terminator 2” was bigger and more exciting than the action in the original movie, the emotional goal in “Terminator 2” made that action meaningful.

On the other hand, “Terminator 3” didn’t offer any new physical action and didn’t offer any type of emotional goal to make the repetitive physical action meaningful in any way. The result was simply a lot of pointless action with no purpose behind it. 

More physical action is never the answer if there’s no underlying emotional dilemma that shapes the purpose of that physical action. Although sequels often replace an emotional goal with more physical action, numerous bad movies do this all the time. Watch any bad James Bond movie and you’ll see this “all action/no substance” storytelling formula repeated over and over again throughout history. 

The physical goal in any story will only be interesting if there’s a compelling emotional goal underlying all the challenges in pursuing the physical goal. The emotional goal must be a tug of war between two extremes.

One extreme is based on the hero’s self-defeating belief. In “Thelma and Louise,” that self-defeating belief is that it’s okay to let a man control your life. That’s how the hero wound up married to a bullying, uncaring husband in the first place. 

The other extreme is an empowering belief that the hero needs to achieve. In “Thelma and Louise,” this empowering belief is that a woman doesn’t have to be oppressed by a man and can be free. 

Once you know the two extremes of the emotional goal that pull the hero apart, then you automatically know how every physical challenge that the hero faces must pull the hero towards one extreme or the other.

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