How to Tell a Story Through Emotions


What is the one thing that connects all people who have ever lived? Emotions. No matter where you are from, you deal with the same emotions as every other human being that has ever lived.

It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, black or white, religious or agnostic, a king or a country peasant you still go through the same emotional journey over the course of your lifetime.  We all know what it is like to hope for something and your dreams come true.  And just as importantly, we all know what it is like to hope for something that never comes.  If you are over the age of 21, your probably know what it is like to have been cheated on by someone that you loved and trusted.  If you are over the age of 31, you probably know what it is like to be on the opposite end of the relationship, being the one that cheated.  If not physically, you at least fantasized about it which made you feel some sort of guilt.  Who hasn’t been jealous at some point?  And who among us hasn’t left someone that we loved (friend, family, or group) hoping that by leaving, the loved one would some how be emotionally hurt.  So hurt, that they would beg us to come back.   Have you ever met someone that made you so happy, all the bad parts of life became irrelevant?   These things make us human.  And as writers, we can use these experiences to write stories that attach themselves to each person in the audience soul for the rest of their life.

Unless you live under a rock, you recognize the cover photo above from the movie, Dreamgirls.  It is my favorite musical.  The story is about a trio of singers, trying to make it big the music business.

Not very many people can say that they have had the experience being in a famous singing group.  However, the show was a huge hit in the 1980’s and an even bigger hit when it was released as a film over 20 years later.  What makes this script so important to people isn’t the synopsis.  There have been lots of scripts about someone trying to make it in the music business.  And even though most people of a certain age would tell that the story is secretly about Diana Ross and the Supremes,  that isn’t the reason why people still flock to the theater whenever the show is being produced.  What audience can’t get enough of is the level of mature emotions that the characters go through.  Each scene is loaded with emotions that everyone can empathize with. Here is the first few scenes of Dreamgirls, told just through the emotions:

  • A group of friends lose a talent contest.  Since this is one of many loses for them, they are ready to stop kidding themselves and go get regular jobs that actually pay them. (Emotion:  Feeling Defeated)
  • They are given a chance of a lifetime to sing backup to a famous singer that travels all over the country. (Emotion:  Hope, Joy, Dreams are coming true.)
  • A young, inexperienced girl falls for an older man that says all the right things to get in her pants and steal her heart. (Emotion: Hope. Joy. Lust. Meeting the person of your dreams.)
  • A singer has his song stolen because it wasn’t copy written. (Emotion: Anger. Hurt. Taken advantage of. Feels like a sucker.)

I can go on, but hopefully, you get the point.  If you begin your next scene with question, “What emotion will I show in this scene?” you will have a story that has some meat on its bones.  A story that can stick to an audience’s ribs.  So today, when you write a scene, what emotion will you connect us with?  Can you do it within 4 to 12 lines?  Can you do it through a song?  Whatever you do, be sure to show us an emotion.  The further the story goes along, the more complex the emotion can get.  For example, by the end of Dreamgirls, the emotions that the characters go through are so complex, you can no longer describe them with one or two words.  Case in point, by the end of the story, the Deana Jones character deals with the emotions of having the man of her dreams, being lied to by him, being used by him to hurt someone else, finally being free of a controlling man, being able to be someone that she has now grown into being, and being happy to have an old friend back in her life after a decade of not talking.  And these are the emotions that one character feels in one scene!  That takes some building up.  I don’t think you can begin a story with that much emotion, but as the story goes on, that should be our goal:  Give our audience an emotional climax so great that they burst into tears of joy.  They should recognize the emotional journey the characters have gone through and grown from.  Good luck with your scene today!

*The photo from the Dreamgirls Film above belongs to Paramount Pictures, DreamGirls Pictures, and Lawrence Marks Production Company.


The Seven Basic Plots

How I Learned What I LearnedSignature Theatre

Have you ever gone into the kitchen of a restaurant after you’ve eaten there a few times?  You feel different when you eat there the next time, right?  It seems simpler some how. Plates of food that appeared before you like magic are now a little less magical.  You may even think, “I can do better than this at home.”   As you continue to learn how to write, you should feel that way about your favorite novel or movie at some point.

And that brings me to the Seven Basic Plots.  Before I get there, I want to call some of you out.  This post is for all of you that have been trapped into thinking that your writing is all about YOU!

The trap that a lot of writers fall into is the “I’m writing this for me” trap.  That trap is basically the same as the “My stuff isn’t commercial” trap.  And it is akin to the “I don’t write for other people’s approval” trap.  All of these are ideas that most writer have debated in their own heads at some point.  The writers that don’t have this debate are the ones that get published most often.  Not only that, they are extremely popular.  Why?  Because they are writing for a larger demographic than themselves.

If you are writing for yourself, you stand the risk of being “too original”.  If this shocks or offends you, please stay with me.  Yes. It is possible to be “too original”.  For example, I volunteer at a local theater and I help organize theatrical readings for emerging playwrights.  Last month, I listened to a reading of a play by an unknown writer.  The play was an absolute disaster.  It had no plot. No main character. And no climax.  The only thing that it did have was an audience of about thirteen people who were bored out of their minds.  I wanted to asked the writer, “Have you ever even read a play in your entire life?…Have you ever even been to a theatrical performance?”

The poor guy actually wrote several lines that I loved.  There were actually several characters that I could have used and created an entire story around.  But don’t get it twisted, I hated the show.  This writer was definitely in the category of “too original”.  What could have helped him is placing the story into one of the Seven Basic Plots.

Some writers reject these seven basic plots because it forces all of their stories to be placed into a bottle.  It makes them feel that their story is too simple or too much like things that are already out there.  If we have worked on something for eight weeks and put our entire heart and soul into it, it’s kind of offensive to have it summed up into three or four sentences.

However, truth be told, simple is a really positive characteristics to publishers, producers, and agents.  They want it to fit nicely into a bottle.  If it does, they know exactly who they can market it to.   They want it to be simple.  Why?  Because “simple” is easy to sell to someone in a fifteen second radio ad.  They want it to be just like something that is already out there.  Especially if it was a success.   Sometimes this means that it’s a parody such as The WIZ and The WIZARD Of OZ.  However, lots of times, it’s outright stealing the essence of a great story and creating something new.   Here are a few perfect example of this:

  • Disney’s The Princess and the Frog is essentially The Wizard of OZ.
  • WESTSIDE STORY is famous for basically retelling the Romeo and Juliet.
  • Every Marvel Comics movie is essentially the story of David and Goliath.

So, simple is good.  Familiar is good.  Creating something that’s easy to describe is extremely good. Not only that, it’s commercial!  And if you intend to do this for a living, you need all of those characteristics.   So here are the seven basic plots.

Plot Option #1: Overcoming the Monster

In this plot, the hero sets out to defeat a growing evil threat.  This is basically the David and Goliath story.  You have some hero who has to defeat some villain that is bigger, stronger, smarter, and more powerful.  We love this plot.  Every summer block-buster movie uses this as it’s skeleton.  IRON MAN, The INCREDIBLES, or PLANET of the APES all fit into this plot.

Plot Option #2: Rags to Riches

In this plot, the hero overcomes poor childhood and tormentors.  Some thoughts that come to mind are ANNIE, FINDING FORRESTER, and ANTWONE FISHER.  Because this plot is so simple, it usually gets mixed in as a sub-plot (or B-plot) in a lot of stories.

Plot Option #3:  The Quest

This is by far my favorite plot.  In this plot, the hero and his companions search for an item.  Some perfect examples are SHREK, THE PAINTING  (France), WIZARD OF OZ, STAND BY ME, and yes HANGOVER 1, 2, and 3.  I absolutely love this plot.  Usually in this plot, each character finds out things about themselves and changes for the better.

Plot Option #4: Voyage and Return

Some hero visits an exotic land, triumphs, then returns home as a changed man.  Perfect examples are Tom Hanks in CAST AWAY, A CHRISTMAS CAROL, GULLIVER’S TRAVEL, and TRADING PLACES.

Plot Option #5:  Comedy

Like Rags to Riches, this plot often is really simple and is usually paired with one of the other plots.  But in essence, a hero discovers and clears up a misunderstanding to be with his partner.  Historically, it ends with a wedding.  Perfect examples are THINK LIKE A MAN 1 and 2, GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER with Aston Kutcher, and MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING.

Plot Option #6: Tragedy

Someone makes a plan to do something positive with their lives and just when they have the chance to “free themselves” of their awful past, they are killed by a loved one, an old friend, or even by a freak accident.  Perfect examples are CARLITO’S WAY, ROMEO and JULIET, KING HEDLEY II, and LE APARTMENT (France).

Plot Option #7:  Rebirth

The hero reverses his own downward spiral into evil.  A perfect example is ON THE WATER FRONT (you know the movie with the line, “I could’da been somebody!  I could’da been a contender!”)  If you haven’t seen it, it’s one of the movies that every writer must see.

So those are the seven basic plots.  But here is another secret:  If you want someone to publish your work, produce your work, or invest in your projects then use one of these plots.  If your work does not fit into one of these plots, I’m sad to tell you that it will never see the light of day.  I know of several amazing writers whom you may never ever hear about about because they choose to not use these plots.  And when I say amazing, I mean Pulitzer level amazing.  But no one is ever going to touch them.

If you want people talking about your stories with their friends or watching your screenplay on their iPhone, stick to these seven basic plots.  Don’t believe me?  Put yourself into the shoes of a millionaire producer.  Which of these stories would you invest your hard earned money in:

Story A: a story that you need to spend 20 minutes explaining to people


Story B: a story about a group of kids that set off to find a pirate’s treasure with only a treasure map and youthful optimism.

Story A won’t get produced but Story B is a great movie called, THE GOONIES.

The final thing that I want to add is this: Being a writer is not much different from being a chef.  Most of what a chef cooks is for other people.  When people sit down to eat meatloaf, they have an idea in their heads of how it is supposed to look and taste.  Now, suppose that the chef gets really creative and uses mustard instead of ketchup in his meatloaf.  Why?  Because this chef really loves mustard.  Sure, a few people may like it but most people will never order that meatloaf again.  It’s the same thing in writing.  There has to be an audience for what you’re writing.  If not, you’re going to be the person walking around with pages and pages of mustard-meatloaf and no one is going to want it but you.

I hope this helps!  After you finish writing today, think of all of your favorite movies and see which of these plots they fit in.  Oh yeah, I bet you thought that movie was super original didn’t you?  Nope.  It isn’t.  This exercise won’t take away from your appreciation for your favorite movie or novel, but whenever you watch a movie or a TV show from now on, I want you to see it differently.  I want you to feel like you just took a tour of the kitchen in your favorite restaurant.  Sure, it may lose a little of it’s magic.  But hopefully you’ll now think to yourself, “This is good but I can make something even better. ”  Have fun!

*The photo above belongs to  The image is from the performance of the play based on the life of August Wilson titled, HOW I LEARNED WHAT I LEARNED.   The play is currently playing through the end of October at Atlanta’s Southwest Arts Center through Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theater.