The Four Layers of Story Building

Watch bad movies and you’ll notice that they always have a potentially interesting premise. In “The Layover,” a movie that’s gotten a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the story is about two women competing for the attention of a single man that they meet when their flight is delayed and they’re stuck at a hotel with him. In “Sex Tape,” another poorly rated film, the story is about a couple that accidentally releases their own sex tape on the Internet and then have to deal with the consequences afterwards.

Good and bad movies always start with an interesting premise and that’s the first layer every story needs, but it’s never enough. Bad movies forget this and just try to layer on jokes, explosions, and mindless action that never works. That’s because every story also needs a second layer that involves an emotional story. In other words, action is fine, but what is it about action that makes us care about the outcome?

If you witness a car crash in real life, it means nothing because you don’t know the people involved or what’s at stake. Now imagine that the person getting into a car crash was a man trying to drive his pregnant wife to the hospital before she gives birth. Suddenly knowing why the man was driving and got into a crash makes that action more important. A car crash alone isn’t interesting until we understand the why behind it, and that’s the second layer every story needs as well.

Why is the hero going through action, gunfire, explosions, and car crashes? The why can be anything, but it absolutely must be there. Why is the hero in “Die Hard” fighting terrorists? Ultimately it’s because he wants to get back with his wife. Why is the hero in “A Quiet Place” fighting monsters? Because he wants to protect his family. Why is the hero in “Hotel Transylvania 3” willing to endure so many hardships? Because he’s lonely and wants to find love.

Once you know what your hero wants (an emotional story), the third layer of a story is to understand the hero’s motivation and that motivation always comes from a haunted past. In “Die Hard,” the haunted past was when the hero separated from his wife through his own arrogance and refusal to see her grow into a corporate job. In “A Quiet Place,” the haunted past was when a girl accidentally got her younger brother killed by a monster. In “Hotel Transylvania 3,” the haunted past was when Dracula lost his wife and is lonely.

The haunted past provides the motivation for pursuing an emotional goal and represents the third layer. Now the fourth layer is how does the hero go about trying to achieve an emotional goal. This fourth layer is your story theme.

In “Die Hard,” the hero tries to achieve his goal through violence and arrogance, until he learns that arrogance was what created his separation from his wife in the first place. In “A Quiet Place,” the hero tries to achieve his goal through showing his family members that he loves them. In “Hotel Transylvania 3,” the hero tries to achieve his goal by loving others.

The four layers of a story look like this:

  1. What’s the interesting premise? (Every story needs this to attract attention)
  2. What’s the emotional goal? (This tells us why overcoming the physical obstacles matters)
  3. What’s the haunted past of the hero? (This tells us the motivation of the hero and why he or she wants to achieve an emotional goal)
  4. What’s the story theme? (This tell us how the hero tries to overcome obstacles, first by doing the opposite of the theme then finally learning to embrace the theme)

Bad movies always stop at the first layer by coming up with an interesting idea. Good movies keep digging deeper for an emotional story, motivation, and a specific way of trying to achieve the emotional goal that teaches the audience (and the hero) a lesson about life somehow.

Stop at the first layer and you’re guaranteed to create a shallow, weak, and dull screenplay. Keep adding more layers and you may not write a great screenplay, but you increase the odds that you won’t write a bad one.

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