Write By This!
Desire Makes the Story

Every single person you meet today wants something.

This may seem like an obvious truth, a statement that barely needs to be said.  But this statement is the absolute and essential basis of every great story that has ever been told.

Desire can be trivial.  The guy across from you on the subway wants to go somewhere.  That’s why he’s riding the train.  Or desire can be monumental.  That guy across from you wants to get to the hospital before his mother dies.

Writers, I want you to start today to think about people from the vantage point of desire.  The next person with whom you come into contact, ask yourself:  What does he or she want?  Your husband may walk into the room and say, “I’m looking for my cell phone.”   Or your husband may walk into the room and say, “I want a divorce.”

Which of these two desires makes the better basis for a story?  By “better” I mean more interesting, more important and more likely to cause conflict.  And by better I also mean: Easier to write.

Obviously, you can write a better scene or chapter with “I want a divorce.”  (Unless you’re writing for Modern Family in which case the husband may say, “I’m looking for my cell phone” but we soon find out that he means “I want a divorce.”)

Why is desire the absolute essential foundation—the fuel—of every story.  Desire is the thing that makes us take action.  Small desires make us take action.  Large desires make us take action.

Action—things that happen—are your plot.  See the connection?  Establish your character’s desire and you have a clear and sensible way to determine your plot.  Conversely, if you don’t know and establish your character’s desire, you have no bloody idea what she does or doesn’t do; nothing happens; and your mother, who after a few pages doesn’t want to read your story but must, says to your father privately, “She’s a good writer but I’m not sure why I should care.”

Knowing your character’s desire is the ticket to successful plotting.   (And any writing teacher who doesn’t tell you so at the outset isn’t worth your time or money.)  For example: Your character wants to have a baby.  Therefore, she will have sex with her husband without using birth control.  She will go to a fertility clinic. She will steal a baby from her neighbor.  There are a thousand things she might do when she wants a baby.  But wanting a baby is the basis for all of them.

How big does your character’s desire need to be?  Allow me to answer by stating a corollary: Every single person you put on the page must have some form of desire, or get ‘em out of there.  Even the bit players.  The baggage carrier at the airport.  The cop who stops the car.  The butler.  The baker.  The computer maker.  They must all be in your story at a moment of desire.  Bit players can have bit desires.  But still, they want something, or they have no reason to be there.  They weigh the story down.  Baggage! Look at every character and see if you’ve achieved at least a modicum of desire, and you’ll see which characters should be in your story and which not.

The major players—the protagonist, the antagonist, the important friends—must have bigger desires.  The protagonist’s desire must be life-and-death important (to him) or there isn’t enough at stake to sustain all that he will do.  To make him go.  To propel him past roadblocks.

Today’s books and classes on How to Write are all about conflict.  But conflict for conflict’s sake is silly.  In stories (as in real life) conflict arises from something.  Conflict arises naturally when someone consumed by desire encounters an obstacle, either in the outside world, or in herself.  Bam!

Desire + obstacle = conflict.

Desire is the great friend of the writer in another way.  Desire causes suspense.  What is going to happen?  A talented script doctor in Hollywood told me that “On every page of your screenplay, there should be at least five unanswered questions.”  The biggest of these questions is the same for every story: Will the protagonist get what he wants?  There should always be a blizzard of lesser questions and many of these involve desire.  Will the protagonist get off the train before it crashes?  Will he save the girl? Will the little boy find his mother?  Will the train conductor have that moment at the window, looking out?  Will the villain realize he has a friend?

When you have desire on every page, as you must, you will never see that comment in the margin, “What’s at stake?”  This is the number one comment I find myself writing in the margins of scripts and manuscripts.  Conference with other writing coaches and scribes tells me that this is the number one comment made to writers, period.

What’s at stake? What’s at stake is that thing that matters to your character.  Her desire.  We all identify with desire.  Even that guy behind the counter at Starbucks wants something—something small as well as something large—right now.



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