Start With Emotions First

Here’s Hollywood’s tried and true formula for creating a disappointing movie. First, come up with a great concept. Then start filming. A great concept can attract attention but you need much more than a great idea to create a great story. You also need an emotional story. In fact, you should start with an emotional story because that highlights change and change is what a story is really all about. Without change, you simply have mindless, empty, meaningless action.

Compare the difference between “Green Book” and “The Spy Who Dumped Me.” In “The Spy Who Dumped Me,” the emphasis is on action and raunchy comedy. The end result is a lot of special effects, car crashes, gunfire, and meaningless action. Not surprisingly, the movie has little emotional change in the characters because there’s almost no emotional story whatsoever.

In “Green Book,” a white man is hired to drive a black pianist around the Deep South during the 1950’s where segregation and racism is rampant. The white man is initially racist against blacks but gradually learns to accept blacks and learn from the black pianist. The black pianist, on the other hand, is isolated from both whites and blacks and gradually learns to embrace the black culture that he initially dismissed as lower class.

Through their contact with each other and experiences, the white man gradually learns to be more tolerant of others and improve himself as a person in expressing his love to his wife through increasingly personal letters. The black pianist learns street smarts from the white man so he can better navigate around the world of common people, especially among blacks. “Green Book” is a wonderful movie where every scene teaches us something new about both characters as they learn, change, and gradually become better people. That’s the whole point of an emotional story and that’s what makes movies worth watching. Nobody watches a movie just to see special effects. Everybody watches a movie to experience an emotion.

To create an emotional story, start with a haunted past where something in the past has hurt a character. Now the character needs to redeem him or herself in the end by overcoming this haunted past.

In “Green Book,” this haunted past occurs in the white man from his limited experiences in the world and his racist views. By the end, this white man has gained a broader perspective on the world and his own life while changing his racist views when he sees how it hurts his black pianist friend. The haunted past for the black pianist is gradually revealed when he admits that he doesn’t fit in with white people (who only hire him for shows) and doesn’t fit in with black people (because he lives in luxury like a white person that they’ll never see). By the end, this black pianist gains the admiration and respect form the white man’s family and also learns to appreciate being around poorer blacks as well.

To create your own emotional story, follow this four-part process:

  1. Act I – A haunted past has created a problem for the hero and now the question is will the hero eventually redeem him or herself in the end by overcoming this problem?
  2. Act IIa – The hero enters a new world where he or she takes on a new identity, often deceiving others in the process.
  3. Act IIb – The hero’s deception slowly unravels as he or she learns that he or she can no longer cling to the past but must embrace the future that involves changing.
  4. Act III – The hero finally shows he or she has changed, getting redemption from the haunted past that he or she started with.

An emotional story is nothing more than showing someone changing. The beginning of the story reveals the hero’s emotional problem and by the end of the story, the hero usually changes for the better and overcomes this initial emotional problem.

In “Tootsie,” the hero was arrogant and treated women poorly. Then he deceives others by pretending to be a woman. Gradually he learns that he can’t keep his deception up any longer. By the end, the hero is no longer arrogant and understands women better.

Start with an emotional story and then use your high-concept to define how your hero changes emotionally. If you start with a high-concept, you’ll risk getting stuck with mindless action that ultimately goes nowhere.

Start with an emotional story and find a way to make it fit within your high-concept. This increases the chance you’ll actually write a story people will care about.

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