What is a Story Really About?

This is what far too many writers do. They search in vain for an original idea and then they try to write a story about that idea. The problem is that they either run out of ideas to keep the story going or they write endless action that serves little purpose other than to dazzle the audience with endless amount of action. (Think of bad James Bond movies.)

More action is never the answer. The first answer is to make the action meaningful to the character in some way. In “Die Hard,” the hero isn’t fighting an army of terrorists in a skyscraper because he wants to but because it’s the only way he can reunite with his wife who is being held hostage by these terrorists.

As soon as you give your hero a strong emotional goal, you can then craft all action to focus on hindering your hero from reaching that emotional goal. Without this underlying foundation of an emotional goal, action risks becoming meaningless. Slip in this underlying emotional goal and this suddenly gives all action a purpose. If the action fails to focus on this purpose, it doesn’t belong.

Now go one step further. You have interesting action and you have all that interesting action focused towards hindering your hero from achieving an emotional goal. Now ask yourself what is your story really about?

In the horror comedy “Bubba Ho-Tep,” the hero is Elvis Presley as an old man living his last days in a nursing home where a mummy has appeared, sucking the souls out of the other nursing home residents and killing them. To defeat this mummy, Elvis needs the help of a black man who claims he’s actually John F. Kennedy.

On the surface, this outlandish premise could create an amusing story watching Elvis fighting a mummy, but the underlying emotional story keeps this story premise focused. In “Bubba Ho-Tep,” this emotional story is that Elvis feels his life has been wasted and now that he’s near death, he wishes he could have lived a better life that he wasted on drugs, alcohol, partying, and women instead of doing something more meaningful like being a better father to his daughter.

So all the action in “Bubba Ho-Tep” revolves around Elvis trying to redeem himself for his past mistakes. Ultimately, the real story of “Bubba Ho-Tep” isn’t about Elvis but about how people don’t realize what’s really important in life until they’re near death. So “Bubba Ho-Tep” is really about the fear of old age.

Once you understand what the story is really about (“Bubba Ho-Tep” is really about the fear of getting old), you can focus the emotional story (Elvis wishes he had been a true hero in life instead of just partying all the time).

This emotional story then shapes the action in your story so in “Bubba Ho-Tep,” Elvis is constantly battling the problems of old age that constantly remind him of missed opportunities from his past.

When creating your own story, start with a unique premise, but go one step further and define what emotional goal your hero wants to achieve. Then go even further and define in abstract terms what your story is really about.

The more general and abstract, the better because you want to pinpoint an idea that’s universal to people.

In “Bubba Ho-Tep,” this universal, abstract idea is the fear of getting old. In “Titanic,” this universal idea is the desire to define your own life. In “Soul,” this universal idea is to appreciate every aspect of life around you.

Bad movies are often bad simply because there’s nothing more to the story beyond the physical action. When you see a trailer for a movie like “Sky Sharks” that shows Nazi zombies riding on flying sharks, you expect nothing more than mindless and violent action. This is what happens when you focus solely on a story idea and action with no emotional story to support it.

If you have nothing but a unique premise that defines specific action (Nazi zombies riding flying sharks), you have no direction or focus for what the action should be. Toss in a strong emotional goal for your hero and this immediately gives action a direction because the action must hinder the hero’s emotional goal.

Now go one step further and abstract your story into a universal idea that anyone can understand such as the fear of getting old. This abstract idea shapes your emotional goal, which further shapes your action, which creates a much stronger and more unified story than just relying on a unique premise by itself.

Stories are more than what you see. Action must mean something to the hero and ideally, the whole story meaning should appeal to everyone. Audiences may never recognize what your story is really about, but as long as you do, you’ll write a stronger story and a strong story is something audiences will recognize and enjoy.

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