The Emotional Structure of Stories (Part I)

The best stories tell both an interesting story while also showing how a hero changes emotionally into a better person (or in tragedies, into a worse person). When a story focuses solely on plot, you wind up with melodrama where action takes precedence and everything is a visual feast of gunfire, explosions, and special effects like a Transformers movie. When a story focuses solely on emotional change in a character, you tend to get less visually exciting movies and more interesting personal stories. Movies like “Ladybird” and “Brooklyn” highlight this emphasis by putting stories in contemporary settings and creating conflict out of character interactions rather than gunfire and explosions.

Ultimately, if a story only focuses on a plot, you wind up with stiff, cardboard characters that nobody really cares about. Think of a bad James Bond movie like “A View to a Kill” where James Bond remains the same person from start to finish. Now think of a far better James Bond movie like “Skyfall” where James Bond starts the movie as a potentially over the hill spy who’s too old, and finally ends the movie with the ¬†understanding that despite failing the physical requirements of being a spy, he’s still effective anyway.

To create an emotional structure for a story, start with a flawed hero. Then decide how that hero will change in the end.

In “Die Hard,” the hero is a gruff cop whose inflexibility led to breaking up with his wife, so his whole goal is to get back with his wife. In the end, he finally admits his stubbornness helped break him up with his wife, and he ultimately gets back together with her again.

In “Titanic,” the hero is Rose, a woman being pushed into an unhappy marriage because she has no money but is used to an upper class lifestyle. Her goal is to avoid being trapped in an unhappy marriage and by the end of the movie, she succeeds in escaping from being forced into marriage. Her biggest flaw is that she doesn’t believe she’s strong enough to define her own life.

Start with the flaw of your hero. Then identify how your hero changes in the end. Just do this simple exercise and you’ll create a much richer story than simply focusing on plot.

“Atomic Blonde” is an example of a lot of action but little emotion. All we get to see is a blonde woman fighting and beating people up. While the action is interesting, the lack of any emotional change makes the entire story forgettable in the end.

So start a story by identifying the flaw in your hero and then how the hero winds up a better person in the end.¬†Of course, there’s more to this than that, but it’s the first step. Make sure your hero changes emotionally and that will create an emotionally satisfying movie.

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