In my post, “How writers can use the psychology of motivation to create believable characters” I explain how every story is about a hero attempting to accomplish a goal that yields the incentive that will satisfy his need. If your hero were a hungry lab rat in a maze built by psychologists, his need would be hunger. His goal would be to press the lever that gives him a food pellet, and the pellet would be the incentive.
Deducing the incentive from the need can be straightforward, because the very nature of the need practically dictates the answer. If the hero is thirsty, the incentive is water. If the hero is love-starved, the incentive is a lover. If the hero is in danger, the incentive is safety.
You should brainstorm as many incentives as you can to make sure you find the best one your mind has to offer. When you’re brainstorm, you need to keep in mind that every detail in your story will extrapolate from these. So it’s of the utmost importance that the need and incentive cater to the purpose of the story.
Ultimately, all stories serve one of two purposes:
- Elicit emotion
- Convey information
Below is a list of purposes your story can serve, including examples of popular movies and the needs and incentives they used to achieve their respective purposes:
The purpose of your story doesn’t have to be profound. Movie studios know the films they’re making are consumer products, and their target audience is bored, overworked suburbanites who don’t have the time, money or freedom to experience life to its fullest; so they live vicariously through their television sets. Sure, some viewers are looking for answers to life’s deepest questions, but most people are just trying to feel alive in between the relentless chores and stresses of modern life.
Any entrepreneur will tell you, in order to be successful in business, you have to find a need and fill it. People need to feel emotions. So the purpose of your script can be to elicit an emotion from your audience. If you decide that’s your story’s purpose, you need pick a goal that caters to the desired emotion.
- Elicit excitement
Most of the movies that have grossed more than $1 billion didn’t have much to say about life. The one that did, “Avatar,” did so in the most exciting way possible. The one love story, “Titanic,” had more action sequences than love scenes.
If you want to write an exciting story, then you need to know what causes humans to feel excited. The sensation of excitement is caused by the release of adrenaline in the human brain. Adrenaline is released when something triggers the fight or flight response in the sympathetic nervous system. The fight or flight response is, “a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival.”
So if you want your story to trigger the release of adrenaline, your hero’s goal should revolve around a threat to survival. This is why the most common goal in summer blockbusters is to save the world.
Your hero doesn’t have to save anyone but himself. The threat just has to be interesting. So, to pick your hero’s goal, ask yourself, “What the most exciting goal a hero can have?”
In “The Dark Knight” the hero’s need is to protect people, and his goal is to stop an anarchist serial killer. The incentive is the antagonist’s absence, and the stakes are peace vs. death.
In “Lord of the Rings” the hero’s need is survival, and his goal is to stop an evil wizard from overrunning the world with orcs. The incentive is the antagonist’s absence, and the stakes are peace vs. death.
In “Star Wars” the hero’s need is security, and his goal is to stop an evil galactic empire from oppressing the galaxy. The incentive is a rebel-controlled government, and the stakes are peace vs. death.
In “Indiana Jones” the hero’s need is “fortune and glory,” and his goal is to find a priceless treasure. The incentive is the Ark of the Covenant, and the stakes are fortune/glory vs. Nazi domination.
- Elicit fear
Fear is also a product of the fight or flight response. It’s also triggered by a threat to survival, and it can be divided into two types: terror and horror.
“Terror is usually described as the feeling of dread and anticipation that precedes the horrifying experience. By contrast, horror is the feeling of revulsion that usually occurs after something frightening is seen, heard, or otherwise experienced. It is the feeling one gets after coming to an awful realization or experiencing a deeply unpleasant occurrence. In other words, horror is more related to being shocked or scared, while terror is more related to being anxious or fearful. Horror has also been defined as a combination of terror and revulsion, but it can be triggered by the anticipation of a threat in the future.”
Depending on which type of fear you want to elicit, ask yourself, “What’s the most terrifying threat you could be hunted by?” or “What’s the most shocking threat you could be harassed by?”
In “It” the hero’s need is survival, and the goal is to stop the magical killer clown that is eating children. The incentive is the antagonist’s absence, and the stakes are survival vs. death.
In “The Blair Witch Project,” the hero’s need is truth, and the goal is to find evidence. The incentive is documenting the truth, and the stakes are life vs death.
In “Hostel” the hero’s need is survival, and the goal is to survive being killed by murderous tourists. The incentive is freedom, and the stakes are life vs death.
- Elicit laughter
Many people have said that humor can’t be explained, but like anything else in the physical universe, if it happens, it happens because of a real cause/effect chain of events that can be reverse engineered. Laughter is a survival mechanism, just like the fight or flight response. It exists because the human mind is designed to think logically.
The human brain is wired to find patterns in the world so it can anticipate them and react appropriately. When it is shown a pattern and then is shown an unexpected variable, it will try to figure out how the new variable relates into the old pattern. If the new variable is threatening, the brain will trigger the fight or flight response. If the unexpected variable doesn’t fit the pattern but is nonthreatening, the brain will reject it for being illogical. The physical manifestation of the mental rejection is laughter.
Every joke has three parts: A subject, a predicate and a conclusion. Together they form a logical cause/effect pattern. The simplest formula for a joke is 1+2=-3.
The number 1 is the subject of the joke. You can call it the introduction or setup. Either way, it begins establishing a pattern. This is why jokes often begin, “A guy walks into a bar…” “Two rabbis were eating at a deli…” “I was eating dinner with my mother in law last night…”
You introduce a situation that the audience has preconceived expectations about in preparation to deviate from the expectations. You can even begin a joke by breaking the expected pattern immediately by saying, “A horse walks into a bar…” “Two rabbis were eating in a church…” “I was having sex with my mother in law last night…”
The number 2 in the formula above is the predicate. In a sentence, the predicate says something about the subject. When you combine the subject and the predicate, you can deduce the logical outcome. So you could make a joke by saying, “A man walks into a bar (subject) and orders a beer (predicate)…” The logical expectation is that the bartender will serve him a beer (conclusion). Finishing the joke is simply a matter of finding a surprisingly ridiculous conclusion for the situation.
Again, you can also create humor by using an unexpected predicate such as, “A man walks into a bar and orders a horse…” or “Two rabbis were eating at a deli, when my mother in law rides in on a horse…”
When you hear the subject and predicate of a joke, your subconscious brain is thinking, “When the first variable is added to the second, I can predict what the outcome will be.” Why the joke is funny depends on why the conclusion doesn’t follow the premise. The unexpected ridiculousness of the conclusion is the punch in the punch line. The conclusion can be absurd, exaggerated, under/overstated, reframed, misinterpreted or opposite of what you expected.
You can also make a successful joke by having a conclusion that does follow the premise logically, but it’s unexpected because nobody has ever pointed it out to you, or you’re surprised to hear someone say it because it’s taboo, poignantly accurate, or has unexpected implications.
Ideally, your whole story could be summarized as a joke, where Act 1 introduces a subject, Act 2-4 builds on the pattern in a way that leads the audience to expect a certain conclusion, and Act 5 deviates from it in an unexpected, ridiculous way.
However, a lot of comedies are written with a basic adventure or love story that drives the plot, and jokes have been crammed into every scene. If that’s the route you want to take, then plot the movie like it’s an action or love story, and worry about the funny details later. If you want the story itself to be a joke, ask yourself what expectation of the audience’s you want to pull the rug out from under.
In “Airplane,” the hero’s need is survival, and his goal is to land an airplane after the crew dies of food poisoning. The incentive is being on the ground, and the stakes are life vs death.
In “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” the hero’s need is to fulfill the will of God, and his goal is to find the Holy Grail. The incentive is the Holy Grail, and the stakes are God’s approval vs God’s disapproval.
In “The Big Lebowski,” the hero’s need is tranquility, and his goal is to get back a rug that was stolen from him. The incentive is his rug, and the stakes are order vs chaos.
- Elicit love
The instinctual need to feel loved is as strong as the instinctual need to have sex. The less we feel loved, the more of a relief it is to live vicariously through fictional characters’ love lives. A love story is just that, a reenactment of two people falling in love. This means the hero’s goal is to fall in love. The rest of the story is just details that will fall into place as you reverse engineer the circumstances. Similarly, if the purpose of your story is to elicit lust, the hero’s end goal will be to have sex, and the rest of the story explains how the hero got laid.
- Elicit sadness
Fear is triggered when you’re afraid you’re about to lose something. The more important the thing is, the more powerful your fear is. A sad story is like a bad joke, where, instead of the conclusion being ridiculous. The conclusion involves losing something important. That’s why the following joke is sad, instead of funny: “A man walks into a bar and orders a beer… because his infant daughter just died, and there was nothing he could do to prevent it.”
Sadness is triggered by losing the thing you value most. You can be sad by knowing you’ll lose something in the future, by losing it right now, or thinking about something you lost in the past. Someone just has to lose something profoundly important, but with one caveat. The loss has to be hopeless. If there’s a chance of saving the thing you lost, the correct emotional response is anger, because your brain will release adrenaline to get you off your butt and trying to save the world.
The movie, “Taken” wasn’t a sad story, even though it started with the hero losing everything he valued most. It was exciting, because the hero had hope that fueled his anger. However, the movie would have been sad if he had lost his family at the end despite his best efforts. The point is, every minute in your story that you want to elicit sadness, the chances of the hero attaining the thing he wants most should be hopeless.
If you want to write a sad story, ask yourself, “What’s the most poignant thing a person can lose, and what’s the most poignant way to lose it?”
In “Schindler’s List,” the hero’s need is to honor life, and his goal is to save as many Jews as he can from concentration camps. The incentive is the people he saves, and the stakes are being good vs. being evil.
In “Brokeback Mountain” the hero’s need is love, and his goal is to be with the man he loves. The incentive is his lover, and the stakes are happiness vs. sadness.
In “Dancer in the Dark” the hero’s need is to take care of her family, and her goal is to pay for her son’s eye surgery. The incentive is her son’s sight, and the stakes are her son’s security vs. insecurity.
In “Requiem for a Dream,” the hero’s need is to be successful, and his goal is to sell enough drugs to make his dreams come true. His incentive is money, and the stakes are prosperity vs. degeneracy.
- Elicit anger
Sadness is a watered down version of the flight response, and is triggered by loss. Anger is a watered down version of the fight response, and is also triggered by the threat or experience of loss. Most people don’t go to the movies because they want to feel angry, but there are markets and uses for anger-inducing content, aka, propaganda.
Tabloids, reality TV shows, religious programming, social justice films, eco-conscious cartoons, and extreme right wing entertainment news segments sell their consumers content that makes them angry at celebrities, politicians and outsiders.
The most poignant example is Disney’s WWII propaganda films such as “The Ducktators” and “Education for Death.” Those films inform the viewer there’s a threat to something they value, and they should be angry and take action to prevent the impending loss. The same thing happens in “Avatar,” “Fern Gully,” “Garbage Warrior” “Medicine Man,” “Hotel Rwanda,” “Crash,” “Network,” “God’s Not Dead,” “Reefer Madness,” “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and “2016: Obama’s America.”
The formula for a story is perfectly suited for propaganda. A story is a dramatized enactment of a person who identifies what’s most important to him in life, loses it and tries to get it back. It walks through the steps of how he lost it and what can be done to get it back. To write your own propaganda film, you just need to pick something in the real world that’s important to you and is under threat. Have the hero walk through the steps of losing it or trying to prevent its loss, trying to neutralize the threat and experiencing the consequences of success/failure.
The story can be a metaphor for what’s happening in the world, or a blue-print for what could happen. As long as your call to action isn’t absurd or immoral, there’s nothing sinister about making a story that points out a valid threat and explores how it got here and how to fix it. The question you need to ask yourself to write a propaganda film is, “What’s the biggest threat to the most important thing that there’s still a chance to fix?”
- Elicit inspiration/motivation
Inspirational and motivational movies hinge on the threat of loss as well. What makes them feel good is that the hero overcomes the seemingly hopeless threat in a spectacular manner. Sad stories tell how someone lost something. Angry stories tell how someone could lose something. Inspirational stories tell how someone got something.
That’s why the following joke makes you feel good, “A man walked into a bar and ordered a beer only to find out it was more expensive than he thought, and he couldn’t afford it. The bartender smiled at the man and said, ‘You look like you’ve had a rough day. I can tell you’ve been working hard and deserve a beer. So I’ll tell you what, it’s on the house. I appreciate you choosing my bar over all the others, and I’m glad to have you here.’”
To make an inspirational story, pick a poignant and seemingly hopeless goal for the hero to achieve.
In “Forest Gump,” the hero’s need is social acceptance, and his goal is to have a normal life despite his mental and physical handicaps. The incentive is Jenny’s love, and the stakes are companionship vs. loneliness.
In “The Shawshank Redemption” the hero’s needs are survival and autonomy, and his goal is to escape prison. The incentive is freedom, and the stakes are life vs. death.
In “Rocky,” the hero’s need is to prove himself, and his goal is to last 12 rounds in a boxing match with the world champion. The incentive is Adrian’s love, and the stakes are purposefulness vs. purposelessness.
In “The Pursuit of Happyness,” the hero’s needs are survival and taking care of his family. His goal is to become a stock broker. The incentive is a good paying job, and the stakes are being a good father vs. being a bad father.
- Elicit curiosity
It’s human nature to want to understand the unknown because it makes us feel safe. Understanding the world around us makes us feel like we’re in control of our environment, instead of it controlling us. We’re especially curious to identify sources of danger, because we evolved for thousands of years listening to strange noises in the night, hoping a monster wouldn’t come out of the shadows and eat us.
To make a mystery story, ask yourself, what’s is the most interesting and dangerous “unknown” a person would want to know?
In “The Maltese Falcon,” the hero’s need is for truth, and his goal is to find out who killed his partner. The incentive is the culprit, and the stakes are justice vs. injustice.
In “The Usual Suspects,” the hero’s need is to do his job, and his goal is to learn the identity of Keyzer Soze. The incentive is knowledge, and the stakes are justice vs. injustice.
In “The Game,” the hero’s need is truth, and his goal is to find out why he’s being accosted by strangers in ways that reflect his inner flaws. The incentive is survival, and the stakes are life vs. death.
- Elicit awe/wonder
Awe and wonder are pleasant emotions that can be triggered in humans by showing them a reason to hope that they don’t fully understand. It’s the rational response to a positive mystery. To write an awe-inspiring movie, ask yourself what the most interesting and wonderful unknown a person would want to know?
In “The Never Ending Story,” the hero’s need is to honor his culture, and his goal is to find the reason his world is dying. The incentive is his home world, and the stakes are survival vs. death.
In “The Matrix,” the hero’s need is for truth, and his goal is to find his place in the Matrix. The incentive is fulfilling his destiny, and the stakes are life vs. death.
In “Inception,” the hero’s need is to be with his family, and his goal is to fulfill a job contract. The incentive is having his criminal record erased, and the stakes are family vs. separation.
Propaganda merges anger entertainment with conveying information, but sometimes the purpose of a story is to convey information about important topics that aren’t under threat. Listed below are some examples.
- Teach a functional lesson
Stories are perfectly suited for being used as instructional guides, since they revolve around a hero setting a goal and going through the steps of accomplishing it while avoiding the occupational hazards. You could write a story about a man who wants to build a house. So he does it, demonstrating how to accomplish every step in the process and overcoming each tasks risks.
The goal and process don’t have to be so literal. You may just want to give the viewer an idea of how people climb Mount Everest, survive a plane crash in the Andes, survive on a deserted island, build a media empire, run for political office, or teach a classroom. In that case, you would write a story that revolves around the hero accomplishing the goal you want to educate the audience about.
These don’t have to be concrete, external tasks. Most non-fiction how-to books are self-help. They walk you through the steps of overcoming common hazards of the human condition. You could go down the list of Amazon’s best-selling self-help books and write stories based on each of them, wherein the hero’s goal is to overcome his character flaw, and to do that, he has to go through the steps listed in the table of contents of the whatever-help book you’re looking at.
- Teach responsibility
The reason some behavior is considered responsible is because it has a positive long-term effect on the most important goal in life, survival. Responsible behavior is relative to the environment one is trying to survive in. The most useful skills and goals a child raised in a remote African tribe will be different than those of an African American raised in the ghettos of Detroit or the penthouses of Manhattan.
Wherever you live, there are rules and best-practices for surviving and thriving in your local environment. These will change as technology, politics, business and social movements change, but some life lessons are universal, like the importance of drinking water and giving/receiving compassionate touch. Everyone needs to learn how to solve problems, manage conflict, cope with not getting everything they want, come to terms with death, etc., etc.
Half the fables ever written are basically metaphors for ways people get ahead or fail at life. If you want to write a fable, you need to ask yourself, what’s the most poignant lesson people should know to succeed in life, and what is the most common way people fail, and what are the consequences of success and failure? With that information, you can write a story about a hero who goes through the steps real humans go through to succeed and/or fail at the chores of life.
- Teach morality
All the rules in life don’t revolve around your own personal survival and well-being. There are other people in the world, who are equally important. From a cosmic perspective, it’s equally important that they be able to survive and flourish.
The determining factor in the morality of an action is whether it helps or hinders someone from fulfilling their potential. There are best-practices for helping and not hurting people. There are flawed goals, flawed rules and flawed processes for interacting with people respectfully and productively that can be illustrated by having a hero walk through the steps of making the same mistakes and suffering the same consequences. These types of stories constitute the second half of the fables ever written. If you want to write a morality-based fable, ask yourself, what are the best/worst and most common ways people interact with each other that helps or hurts one or both of them? And what are the steps and consequences?
- Teach about a topic
You might have a burning passion for astronomy, WWII, the food service industry, maps, zoos, weight lifting, computers, video games, or anything else with a page on Wikipedia. You might not want to teach people how to WWII, but you want people to know about WWII. To do that, ask yourself what goal a person would have to have to lead him on a journey through the facts you want to relate. Then create the hero who would be most logically and entertainingly positioned to walk the path to the goal you’ve set.
In “Rabbit Proof Fence,” the hero’s need is to be with family, and her goal is to travel across Australia to get home. The incentive is family, and the stakes are belonging vs. separation. The story allows the author to explore the culture and geography of Australia.
In “Hugo,” the hero’s need is to fulfill curiosity, and his goal is to find out how/why an automaton works. The incentive is understanding, and the stakes are awe vs. impoverishment. The story allows the author to explore the life and filmography of Georges Méliès.
In “Moulin Rouge,” the hero’s need is love, and the goal is to win the love of a woman. The incentive is his lover, and the stakes are love vs. loneliness. The story allows the author to explore life in the Moulin Rouge.
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