Why the Emotional Dream Triumphs Physical Action Every Time

Read log lines of movie ideas and they always focus on the physical action, which is great. However, unless the screenwriter goes further and develops an emotional dream, all the best physical action in the world will feel empty and meaningless.

One of the latest animated films is “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” which is about the last family on Earth trying to survive the robot apocalypse. This alone is compelling and interesting, but the entire story would flop if it didn’t have an emotional element behind all the physical action. Watch the trailer and you’ll see that the physical action is clear but the emotional element is only hinted at.

The physical action in “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” is clear. The family has to survive and ultimately stop the robot apocalypse. However, the physical goal only exists to help the hero achieve an emotional goal. In this case, if you’re the last family to survive the robot apocalypse, then that highlights the need to cooperate and get along for everyone’s survival. Hence the emotional goal is to brig the family together again after they’ve stared to drift apart.

The heart of the story is about a teenage girl who’s about to leave for college and she’s happy to get away from her family. In the meantime, her parents realize they have just one more chance to strengthen their bond together before they’ll risk losing their daughter for good. So they decide to take one last family road trip together and that’s when the robot apocalypse breaks out.

When coming up with ay story idea, it’s always easier to start with a compelling action. Once you know this intriguing action, then you can ask yourself what would a person need, emotionally, to achieve that physical action? Once you know this, then you’ll know the emotional goal your hero needs.

The “Die Hard” formula has been over-used in pitting one man against an army of villains in a confined space. So what’s emotionally appealing in the original “Die Hard” movie isn’t just that the hero is fighting an army of terrorists by himself, but he’s doing it for a purpose. Specifically, he wants to get back with his wife.

Strip away this emotional goal and you’re left with nothing but empty action, otherwise known as “Die Hard” sequels and “Die Hard” copycats.

The key is that once you define the physical action in your story, you need to ask yourself what’s emotional about that physical goal?

  • What type of person would be able to achieve that physical goal?
  • Or what is the purpose of the physical goal to making one person’s life better?

In “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” the family can only survive by cooperating. Thus their emotional goal is to learn to get along with each other.

In “Die Hard,” one emotion the hero needs to overcome is fear, but a stronger emotional element is that the hero needs to get back to his wife and the army of terrorists threatens to make that impossible.

So create a compelling log line for your story. Then ask yourself how to inject an equally compelling emotional goal so all that physical action makes sense in the end.

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