How to Create an Emotional Story

When most people come up with a story, they focus on the high-concept idea. In “Bumblebee,” the latest Transformers movie, that high-concept could be what would happen if one of the hero Transformer robots has to hide on Earth to protect it against the bad guys (Decepticons)?

In a typical “Transformers” movie, that would be all Hollywood would need to start creating special effects involving car crashes, explosions, gunfire, and helicopter chases. That would also be the reason why most “Transformers” movies are all action and no story, completely empty of emotion.

Thankfully, that’s not the case with “Bumblebee,” but what makes this “Transformers” movie so much better than the others? It all boils down to emotion.

Any time you come up with a high-concept story idea, the next step is to come up with an accompanying emotional story as the foundation. Without this emotional story as a foundation, no high-concept story idea can survive.

In “Bumblebee,” the basic story is that Bumblebee, a good Transformer robot, gets sent to Earth to hide while two evil Transformer robots hunt him down. While there’s a million different ways to create an emotional story form this high concept, the best solution is to look at how your high-concept idea changes over time.

In “Bumblebee,” Bumblebee hides on Earth, then gets discovered by an 18-year old girl. Bumblebee befriends her and ultimately she helps him defeat the evil Transformer robots. Then in the end, Bumblebee has to leave her to join with the rest of the good Transformers coming to Earth.

As always, start with the end. Bumblebee has to leave the 18-year old girl (the hero) in the end. Ask yourself, why would this be emotional? The simple answer is that it’s only emotional because this means something to the hero (and the audience).

The key is that the Bumblebee must leave the hero in the end. So the emotional story is that the hero must learn to say good-bye.

Saying good-bye to a robot you’ve only known for a few days isn’t that emotional, but what defines the emotion is that the hero misses her father who died of a heart attack. While everyone else has accepted that he’s gone, the hero has not and still longs for her father. So the hero’s emotional story is learning to overcome the loss of her father.

The way she does this in the end is learning to say good-bye to Bumblebee when Bumblebee has to leave her. Instead of the brooding, depressed girl that she was, the hero is now on the road to happiness after learning to say good-bye to Bumblebee and indirectly her father as well.

So what makes the hero’s good-bye to Bumblebee emotional isn’t just her saying by to a giant robot, but also saying good-bye to her father and accepting it. That’s what makes “Bumblebee” a strong emotional story. Strip away the giant robots punching each other and you still have a great emotional story.

The key is to identify the end of your physical, high-concept story. Then identify what makes this ending so emotional. Once you know what makes your story emotional, you can work backwards to the beginning, always keeping in mind that the hero creates his or her own problems.

In “Bumblebee,” the hero can’t let go of the fact that her father is dead. By the end, she accepts this and can be happy with her life once more.

Look at the ending of any great movie and you can see how the physical ending enhances the emotional story. In “Titanic,” we already know the ocean liner is going to sink. What we don’t know is what will happen to the hero, Rose. When the hero, as an old lady, throws the diamond necklace over the side of the ship this symbolizes the real treasure (and emotional story), which is how she created an exciting and adventurous life for herself after surviving the Titanic.

In “Star Wars,” Luke blows up the Death Star. That by itself is nothing special, but what is special is seeing that Luke could only succeed by achieving his emotional story, which was to live an exciting life. By blowing up the Death Star, he achieves his dream just like Rose succeeded in living an exciting life in “Titanic.”

So the ending of the physical story represents the physical manifestation of the emotional story. Once you know how your story ends physically, you have a huge clue at how it needs to end emotionally. Armed with that clue, you can work backwards to define your emotional story. Forget about creating high-concept ideas by themselves. It’s the emotional story that will separate your screenplay from all the rest.

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