Structuring the Physical Goals with the Emotional Dream

The best stories are all about emotions. Nobody watches a movie for the fifth time because they’re surprised by the car chases, gunfire, or helicopter explosions. People watch their favorite movies because they want to re-experience the emotions of their favorite movies all over again.

So before writing anything, identify the emotion your story. What does your hero need to fix their broken life? In “Rocky,” Rocky needs to prove to himself that he’s not a bum. In “The Little Mermaid,” Ariel needs to develop a happy relationship with her father, King Triton. The emotional dream is what the hero needs but the way to achieve this emotional dream requires a physical goal.

Bad movies simply focus on a physical goal with no emotional dream whatsoever. Such movies may provide a lot of action, but in the end, they’re utterly forgettable.

The way to structure a screenplay is to start with the emotional dream. In the beginning of Act I, make it clear that the hero has an emotional dream, but don’t just tell us. Let us see the problems stemming from this emotional dream.

In “Rocky,” Act I starts by showing Rocky’s sordid life fighting in a dingy gym, living in a dismal apartment, and looking in on a girl he likes who works in a pet store, but who is too afraid to talk to him.

In “The Little Mermaid,” Act I shows Ariel too busy looking around at the world outside the ocean that she misses the concert for King Triton, which upsets him and shows their strained relationships.

Now jump to the end of Act III. In “Rocky,” Rocky has survived a fight with the heavyweight champion of the world and the whole world has cheered him on. Despite the fact that he lost the fight, he won the hearts of the world just by putting up an amazingly great fight. By the end of the story, Rocky has proven to the world and to himself that he’s not a bum.

Jump to the end of Act III in “The Little Mermaid” and Ariel has embraced her father, King Triton, who finally approves of Ariel’s life. So the structure of Act I and Act III can look like this:

  • Act I – Hero has an unresolved emotional dream
  • Act III – Hero achieves emotional dream

To achieve any emotional dream, the hero must follow a physical path. This physical path is the achievement of a physical goal that comes from the villain. In “Rocky,” Apollo Creed (the villain) gives Rocky the chance to fight for the heavyweight championship in the beginning of Act II. Then by the end of Act II, Rocky is ready to fight.

In “The Little Mermaid,” the beginning of Act II is where Ariel decides to become human to pursue the prince’s love. By the end of Act II, she finally wins the prince’s love.

So the structure of the entire screenplay can look like this:

  • Act I – Hero has an unresolved emotional dream
    • Act IIa – Hero starts pursuing a physical goal
    • Act IIb – Hero achieves physical goal
  • Act III – Hero achieves emotional dream

Look at this structure in “Star Wars”:

  • Act I – Luke wants to live a life of adventure
    • Act IIa – Luke sets off to deliver the stolen Death Star plans
    • Act IIb – Luke escapes the Death Star and delivers the stolen Death Star plans
  • Act III – By blowing up the Death Star, saving the rebel base, and protecting Princess Leia, Luke has lived a life of adventure

Structure your screenplay by defining the emotional dream and the physical goal needed to achieve that emotional dream. Once you have this structure in place, you’ll have a solid foundation for telling a compelling story.

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