What Does the Hero Want?

Right from the start, you have to define what your hero wants. Then in the end, you have to answer the question whether the hero gets what he or she wants. Define this initial question and answer and you know the rough outline of how your story begins and ends.

In “Die Hard,” the hero wants to get back with his wife. In the end, he finally does get back with his wife.

In “Mary Poppins,” the children just want to be with their dad. By the end, their dad wants to be with them too as they happily fly a kite together.

In “The Little Mermaid,” the hero just wants to be human. By the end, she gets to be human.

Watch any musical and one of the earliest songs will focus on what the hero wants. In “My Fair Lady,” the hero wants to live a decent life. By the end, she gets it. In “Beauty and the Beast,” the hero wants to get out of her provincial life. By the end, she gets it. In “Tangled,” the hero wants to get out in the world. By the end, she gets out in the world.

Clearly identifying what your hero wants is crucial because then audiences wants to know if your hero achieves his or her dream or not in the end. Basically you can define the beginning and end of every story in two parts:

  • Act I — The hero has an emotional dream that’s clear to the audience
  • Act III — The hero either achieves this emotional dream or fails

So what happens in between? Divide a 120-minute movie in four parts and you get four 30-minute Acts so after Act I defines the hero’s emotional dream, Act IIa shows the hero appearing to achieve it.

However, the catch in Act IIa is that the hero often must rely on deception that doesn’t really achieve his or her emotional dream.

In “Tootsie,” the hero thinks he needs to pretend to be a woman to get an acting job, and he succeeds. However, once he falls in love with his co-star, he can’t fulfill his emotional dream of love because his co-star thinks he’s a woman.

In “School of Rock,” the hero pretends to be a teacher so he can teach kids about rock music. However, he’s always in danger of losing his job once the school realizes he lied about being a teacher.

In “Titanic,” the hero pretends to still go along with her mother’s wishes to marry a rich man she doesn’t love and who treats her poorly. However, she’s really in love with Jack, a lower class man who she can’t marry because he’s poor.

Act IIa is about the hero appearing to achieve his or her emotional dream but finding it incomplete. In Act IIa, the hero pursues an emotional dream mostly for selfish reasons. Then by the end of Act IIa, he or she realizes that the emotional dream is still out of reach.

In Act IIb, the hero faces a dilemma. He or she can’t maintain a deception and can’t stay selfish. Now the hero faces a crisis when the deception is ultimately revealed and everything falls apart.

In “The Proposal,” the hero is pretending to marry an American so she can stay in the United States. However, she can’t go through with a fake marriage just to stay in the country so she willingly admits her deception.

In “Tootsie,” the hero finally unmasks himself because he realizes his love for his co-star is stronger than his selfish reason for wanting to be a successful actor.

In “Titanic,” the hero finally realizes she can’t keep pretending to go along with marrying a man she doesn’t like just because he’s rich, so she stops pretending.

The basic four-part story structure of your hero’s emotional dream looks like this:

  • Act I — Hero has an emotional dream
  • Act IIa — Hero pursues emotional dream often through deception that only benefit him or herself
  • Act IIb — The hero suddenly realizes he or she can’t maintain this deception any more and stops it to benefit others
  • Act III — The hero either gets the initial emotional dream or not

Take any of your favorite movies and define it through this simple four-part story structure. Then outline your own screenplay using this four-part story structure. This will help you shape your story before you start writing your actual screenplay.

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