How to Write Action That Makes Emotional Sense

Why does Hollywood keep making awful movies over and over again? The main reason is that too many people in Hollywood focus on superficial appearances such as getting an A-list director or actors. The truth is that A-list directors and A-list actors flop all the time, not because they lack the skills but because they start with a flawed script.

No amount of special effects, sex, car crashes, or explosions will save a flawed script even if directed by an A-list director or performed by A-list actors. Too many writers start with creating an interesting premise but the only way they can keep the story going is to add more and bigger obstacles that often mean nothing to the characters. As a result, bigger and flashier spectacles simply drag the story down.

Here’s a better way.

Most writers start with a log line that summarizes the story in one or two sentences. Usually this log line describes what happens. What’s needed is an equivalent emotional log line that gives all action in the story meaning.

In the Australian movie “These Final Hours,” an asteroid hits the North Atlantic, sending shock waves across the globe and wiping out all life on Earth. That’s the physical premise but the story could go in any direction with lots of action that might look visually interesting but feel emotionally empty.

What “These Final Hours” does is start the hero with an emotional problem. He’s with his girlfriend who just told him that she’s pregnant. Now his emotional problem is that he’ll never get a chance to know if he would have been a good father because the world is going to end in twelve hours.

Once you know your hero’s emotional problem, all physical action revolves around resolving this emotional problem. In “These Final Hours,” the hero leaves his pregnant girlfriend because she wants to watch the end of the world and he can’t face that thought.

While traveling, he rescues a young girl who has been kidnapped by two men who want to rape her. After rescuing this girl, he’s not sure what to do with her and immediately starts thinking about leaving her. At first, he thinks about just abandoning her but realizes she’ll be helpless. Then he tries to get someone else to take care of her.

First, he tries dropping her off at his sister’s place, but his sister and her family have all committed suicide. Then he goes to visit his own mother to repair his relationship with her. He later spots a policeman leading some kids into a library and thinks he can leave the girl with the policeman, only to discover the policeman plans to kill himself and his own kids.

The hero visits a friend who’s holding a massive drug-fueled, alcohol-laced, orgy, and the hero realizes he can’t leave the little girl here, especially when a woman tries to take the girl to replace her own lost daughter.

Finally, the hero takes the girl to the girl’s relative’s place where she was heading. That’s when he sees that the little girl’s family has committed mass suicide. Yet the little girl is happy because she finally reunited with his father and the hero realizes by taking care of this little girl all this time, he would have been a good father after all.

The little girl urges the hero to go back to his girlfriend and they reunite on the beach to watch the end of the world and tell each other they love each other. The hero’s emotional problem (not knowing if he would have been a good father) is now complete because all action in the story keeps challenging him to determine if he would have been a good father or not.

That’s how you write a good story. Having an interesting premise is never enough because all bad movies start out with a good idea. You need an interesting physical story plus an underlying emotional story that shapes the physical story.

In “These Final Hours,” the story could have gone in any direction but the emotional focus of trying to be a good father keeps all action meaningful.

When writing your own stories, get creative with an interesting premise, but go one step further and define the emotional premise that will shape your physical action. Failing to do this is the reason Hollywood makes so many awful movies because they forget the underlying emotional premise every time.

Ultimately, all stories are emotional. Forgot this and you’ll make a bad story just like Hollywood.

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