The Emotional Story is Foundation of a Good Story

There are two zombie movies that make fun of a potential zombie apocalypse: “Shaun of the Dead” and “Anna and the Apocalypse.” Although both movies depict a world where zombies overrun the world and the hapless hero has to deal with the problem, the real story isn’t about a zombie apocalypse at all.

In “Shaun of the Dead,” the hero is a loser who doesn’t get along with his stepfather and girlfriend. Because of the zombie apocalypse, the hero is forced to rescue his stepfather and girlfriend. In the process, the hero repairs his relationship with his stepfather and girlfriend, gets his mother to bless his relationship with his girlfriend, and ultimately saves his girlfriend from the zombie apocalypse.

So the story is really about a man trying to fix his relationships with the people around him and the zombie apocalypse just happens to force him to do so.

That’s essentially the purpose fo any story. The zombie apocalypse in “Shaun of the Dead” is what people think the story is about, but the story really is about the emotional goal of repairing the hero’s relationships with the people closest to him.

“Anna and the Apocalypse” is also about a zombie apocalypse but it too includes an emotional story where the hero yearns to be on her own without her father telling her what to do. In addition, she’s separate from an ex-boyfriend and becoming friendly with a new potential boyfriend.

Because of the zombie apocalypse, Anna fixes her relationship with her ex-boyfriend and bonds with the boy she currently likes. Anna also mends her relationship with her father as well.

So although “Anna and the Apocalypse” is about zombies like “Shaun of the Dead,” it’s also really about an emotional story instead.

What most people do is come up with a high-concept idea (the physical story) and then focus solely on that high-concept idea. This inevitably creates weak stories that are all action and empty of emotion like “The Spy Who Dumped Me” or “Sex Tape.”

Ideally once you come up with a high-concept idea, you need to convert this idea into an emotional story where the physical story forces the hero to confront and deal with the emotional story.

In “Star Wars,” the physical story of stopping Darth Vader constantly forces Luke to deal with his emotional dream, which is to live an adventure:

  • Luke has to chase after R2D2 and meets Obi-wan as a result
  • Luke decides to go with Obi-wan after stormtroopers kill his aunt and uncle
  • Luke is forced to deal with seedy characters in a seedy bar to look for a pilot to take him off his planet
  • Stormtroopers almost stop Luke from escaping off his planet
  • The Death Star captures Luke, forcing him to hide
  • Luke decides to rescue Princess Leia
  • Luke has to protect Princess Leia from stormtroopers
  • Luke has to shoot down TIE fighters after escaping from the Death Star
  • Luke has to dogfight his way to blowing up the Death Star

As you can see, the physical story constantly forces Luke to live an adventure. Initially, Luke changes because he has no choice (chasing after R2D2). Then he willingly puts himself in situations where he has to change although he’s unsure of himself (going into a seedy bar to look for a pilot).

Finally, he starts growing in confidence to the point where he helps Hans by convincing Hans to help him rescue Princess Leia. Then in the end, Luke has finally learned how to live an adventurous life when he trusts the Force to help him blow up the Death Star.

The basic four-part story structure for the hero’s emotional story looks like this:

  • Hero has an emotional dream and is forced to start changing
  • Hero is unsure and hesitant, but puts himself in situations where he has to change
  • Hero starts changing and helps an ally change as well
  • Hero completes change by embracing the story theme (a lesson he mentor teaches the hero), which helps him or her defeat the villain

A physical story alone is never enough. An emotional story tacked on to a physical story isn’t enough either and winds up creating a disjointed story.

A physical story that forces the hero to keep facing the emotional challenge is what makes a well-crafted story. The physical story is the high-concept idea, the emotional story is what’s really important (the theme), and the link between the physical and emotional story is the physical story constantly forcing the hero to confront his or her emotional dream.

An emotional story, constantly reinforced by a physical story, is the key to good storytelling.

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