Threaten the Hero Physically and Emotionally

What makes a story interesting is seeing a hero gradually change. The hero initially starts out in a dead end life due to a past mistake or trauma. Then the hero gradually changes over time until finally achieving a new and better life. In between the beginning and the end, the hero must constantly be under attack physically and emotionally.

Physical attacks threaten the hero’s life and the well-being of people the hero loves. Nearly all movies threaten the hero physically, even bad ones. The difference between a good movie and a bad one is that a bad movie only threatens the hero physically while a good movie also goes one step further and threatens a hero emotionally.

Watch any movie and you can see that the hero must be threatened physically, usually with physical death in some way. That physical death could mean getting killed such as in any James Bond movie, but it could also mean destroying the hero’s dreams by threatening someone the hero loves. In “Die Hard,” the villain isn’t just threatening to kill John McClane, but he’s also threatening to kill or hurt John McClane’s wife. If the villain kills John McClane’s wife, that will destroy his dream of getting back with her again.

Threatening the hero and threatening someone the hero loves is the basic requirement for any action. To make a better story, any action the villain takes against the hero should also threaten the hero emotionally.

To threaten the hero emotionally, simply look at your story’s theme that defines the two extremes of the hero in the beginning and in the end. In “Titanic,” the theme is about taking control of your own life, so the Rose initially starts out passive and miserable as others define her life for her. By the end, Rose learns to take control of her own life and she’s much happier as a result.

So to threaten any hero emotionally, force the hero to constantly choose between the two extremes. In “Titanic,” all action must constantly force the hero to choose between being passive and letting others define her life, or taking control and defining her own life. This occurs multiple times:

  • When Rose invites Jack to dinner for saving her life, she faces her mother and the villain (the man she’s supposed to marry). Rose risk choosing between siding with Jack or taking the easy way out and siding with her mother and the villain. What Rose does makes this action important even though it lacks explosions, gunfire, and car crashes like a ┬átypical bad movie would offer.
  • When Rose goes with Jack inside the car held in the storage area, she could just leave Jack but she takes a risk by making love to him.
  • When Rose is in a lifeboat getting away from the Titanic, she could sit passively and be saved, but she decides to jump off the lifeboat and rescue Jack.

All the action in “Titanic” forces Rose to constantly choose between the two extremes of her life: being passive or being active and defining her own life. It’s not the physical action that makes “Titanic” interesting but the emotional action that makes a simple act like inviting Jack to dinner seem suspenseful and terrifying because of what could go wrong.

Remember, you don’t make a story more interesting by increasing the physical action such as having a tornado threaten the hero and then having a tornado full of sharks threaten the hero later while being attacked by terrorists armed with machine guns. You make a story more interesting by making sure all action constantly forces the hero to choose between the two extremes of his or her life.

Identify the dead end life that your hero starts at, then define the new, better life your hero ends up in. Then all action must force the hero to constantly choose between the two options.

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