The emotional line of your story is the emotional relationship between the main character and another major character. Although your main character interacts with many other characters, there is really only one other major character with whom he experiences the primary emotional relationship or connection.
In Ordinary People, the main character, Conrad, has relationships with many other characters—his mother, father, friends, coach, psy chiatrist, girlfriend, friend from the hospital. However, his emotional line is between Conrad and his mother. Conrad desperately wants his mother's love and in the climax he discovers that she is incapable of loving him. His emotional change is that he finally realizes he will never get her love and that it's not his fault. He accepts that his mother doesn't love him as much as she loved his dead brother. That he has done nothing to cause this emotional pain, but his mother is just incapable of loving him in the way he wants her to.
This change was brought about by his struggle to get his mother's love throughout the story. Even though he doesn't receive her love, he is finally able to develop feelings of self-worth in spite of her. In the climax, Conrad comes to a new level of understanding about his mother. For the first time he accepts her as she is. But his main change is his ability to like himself regardless of how she treats him. Conrad has experienced an emotional transformation or change and he's different from who he was in the beginning of the story.
To put it in simple terms he has gone from being insecure to being secure. Remember what I said earlier, that the main character must experience a change! In the climax of Ordinary People, Conrad changed, as Michael did in Tootsie. In both examples each character experienced an emotional change and an emotional transformational arc.
In every screenplay there needs to be a character arc so that we see the character change from one emotional state to another, thereby revealing the character's emotional growth.
One of the biggest criticisms of movie, A.I. is you didn't care about anyone in the film, which was proliferated with so many special effects that the emotional line was lost. You weren't even involved with the main character, which was quite a contrast to E.T. Both films about aliens were made by Steven Spielberg. In A.I. there was no strong emotional line between any of the characters, while in E.T. there were powerful emotional relationships between E.T and his human friends, who loved him and wanted to help him go home.
Even in action adventure films, when there is strong action plus a powerful emotional relationship between the main character and another major character, you have greater depth, you have fireworks, you have drama! Some of the successful adventure films which also include an emotional relationship are such classics as:
The African Queen, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the recent film, The Gladiator. These worked because they included both levels—plot and emotional line—making us care about the characters throughout all their adventures. We hope they will survive the danger together. By the end of these adventures we root for these characters to be safe.
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