Sell on emotion, justify with logic?

Yes, but …

Stories teach us that emotions have a logic of their own.

We may be irrational, unknowable creatures …

But at least in stories, emotions must make sense.

If they don’t, then we the audience won’t believe what’s happening in the story. Like when characters do dumb things that don’t make any sense.


I felt this way (as did many others) when I saw last year’s Superman vs. Batman movie. Throughout the movie, Batman becomes convinced he must kill Superman, because of Superman’s godlike powers and the chance he might destroy the world someday.

Okay, I’ll buy that.

But in the climactic scene, Batman decides not to kill Superman. Why? Because their Mothers happens to share the same first name.

This did not ring true. The coincidence of names just wasn’t a strong enough motivation to turn aside a character as resolute as Batman.

However, there was another superhero movie last year that did get the climactic scene right. Its emotions did ring true.

Strangely enough, this superhero flick also centered on good guys fighting each other.

And even more strangely, the climactic scene also involves a murder.

And a Mother.

(Greek Tragedy has nothing on guys in spandex.)

I’m speaking of Captain America: Civil War.

In Civil War, Captain America must protect his friend Bucky, who has been framed.

Yeah, Bucky did some very bad things in the past, but it wasn’t his fault. He was brainwashed and turned into a robotic killing machine – the “Winter Soldier” — with zero self-control.

At first, it’s only Cap and a few other superheroes who believe in Bucky’s innocence. Several of the other superheroes, including Iron Man Tony Stark, are on the opposite side of the table.

But gradually, Tony finds his way back to Cap’s side. It looks like the gang is finally going to be back together.


Because in the climactic scene, Tony sees some “found footage” that whips him back around into fighting mode. And it’s completely believable, because his emotions make perfect sense.

Here’s why: Tony sees a recording of Bucky – as the mindless Winter Soldier – slaying his parents in cold blood.

Oh, he still knew that Bucky wasn’t really responsible. He knew that Bucky was merely a gun loaded and pointed by someone else, the evil Hydra.

(Winter Soldiers don’t kill people; brainwashing-secret societies kill people.)

Stark knew all that.

He just didn’t care.

The dude killed his mom. So he’s gotta go.

And I found myself nodding, yep, he’s absolutely right.

Because emotions have a logic of their own.

And to make your sales story compelling, you want to capture these ‘logical’ emotions.

Call it the “Mother Rule”: a character’s emotions and motivations must make immediate sense in the context of the story. Or we the audience won’t believe.

Now in the case of Civil War, the context was established early on. The very first scene in the movie set it up: we see Tony reliving the last time he saw his parents. We feel his deep regret that he never told them how much he loves them.

But in a way, that wasn’t even necessary. Because our devotion to our parents is hardwired in.

(Even if we don’t like them very much. It’s an old idea: I can insult my parents, but heaven help you if you try it.)

In Civil War – unlike Superman v Batman – the character’s action makes sense. When you just witness someone killing your mother, you pretty much want to kill that person. It’s as simple and basic as you can get.

That’s why grizzled copywriters and veteran storytellers alike go for the jugular: basic motivations that automatically ring true.

The desire to win. The fear of embarrassment and shame.

The desire to fit in. And the desire to feel special. (Funny how those two can come in conflict, neh?

Might make for a good story conflict right there.)

In a story, we want the actions of the characters to “line up” with these basic emotions.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you need to use more than one sentence to sum up a character’s motivation, you’re probably in trouble.

For Tony Stark: I just watched Bucky kill my mom, so now I’m going to kill him.

For Batman: Superman’s mom is named Martha, and my mom’s name was also named Martha, and that makes me feel kind of bad for him, because it reminds me that he’s a person with a mommy too, and I guess I should have known that before, but it really never came home to me till just now, so …

Doesn’t have the same punch.


Use the “Mother Rule” to make your character actions emotionally believable.

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