Story Fuel

We’ve now taken a global look at Genre (1, 2, and 3) and dived deeper into the three Story structures and their relationships to the external and internal worlds of protagonists (1, 2, and 3).

Hang in there, I almost fell asleep myself after writing that last sentence. When is this blathering going to get practical!

In the next two posts after this one, I’ll detail the qualities and give examples of the critical last Genre leaf, Content. Then we can move on to actually applying all of this information when I’ll detail how you can map out your whole novel on one piece of paper. No joke.

But before I do that, it’s best to remind ourselves about the essential fuel of Story—conflict. Without conflict, a story is not a Story.  It’s your Uncle Harry chattering away about his trip to the barbershop.  And the big payoff for Harry the master raconteur is when he reveals that he got his hair cut.

Remember that if we boiled every Archplot and Miniplot down to its component parts, we’d find that the chain of events in each is very much in keeping with what Joseph Campbell referred to as The Heroes Journey.

A protagonist or multi-protagonists go on a mission at the beginning and by Story’s end, after overcoming or not overcoming forces of antagonism (inner, personal or extra-personal conflicts), he or they are irrevocably changed. That’s it.

Well not quite it.

Something must happen at the very beginning of the story—an event that throws the lead character’s life out of balance.  That something is the Inciting Incident (more on this down the road).

Either a good thing happens or a bad thing happens. The event can be a random coincidence [Aliens attack] or a causal occurrence [your lead character’s wife leaves him]. A positive change or a negative change in the life of the character unsettles his world and requires that the character do something to get back to “normal.” Just like we do when our world gets weird.

This event gives rise to an object of desire in your lead character’s conscious and often sub-conscious mind, a tangible object (a conscious want) and something intangible (a subconscious need). Perhaps he wants to stop the aliens from destroying earth (conscious) while he needs to prove to his family that he’s worthy of their love (unconscious). Depending on your choice of genre, the balance of these desires (which one dominates and which one is underneath the telling of the story) varies. The key thing is that the lead character believes that if he attains his conscious object of desire (his want), all will right itself in his world. Whether or not that is true is a whole other ball of wax.

For example, let’s say that at the beginning of a story, a lead character’s father-in-law confesses to him that he only has enough money to take care of himself for six months. After that, the father-in-law will need the lead character’s help to not just survive but keep up appearances as a respectable wealthy man. This inciting incident (family member desperately demanding help) throws the lead character’s life out of whack.

He has to do something.

And doing nothing is doing something too.

Let’s say the lead character chooses to blow off the father-in-law. He nods his head during the heart to heart talk, but takes zero action afterward. So, the father-in-law turns up the heat. He tells his daughter about his predicament. The heat from her father (I went to your husband for help and he’s done nothing!) puts her under a great deal of stress. She’s now torn between her love and obligation to her father and the love and obligation she has to her husband.

Perhaps after the lead character is confronted by his wife’s Daddy says you won’t help him! duress, he chooses to do something. He decides to find a way to get the meddlesome father in law out of his life…for good. Let’s say the conscious/tangible/external object of desire the protagonist chooses in this case is to get his hands on a lot of money. Once he has the money and gives it to his father-in-law, he’ll get his life back.

Now, we could stop right here and map out an entire Archplot Story based on this inciting incident. We could come up with a crime story or action story or horror story to drive the narrative velocity in such a way that the reader/viewer/listener will be held spellbound about what will happen next. The entire story will ride on whether or not the lead character will succeed in getting the money. That’s fine. (Check out the film Sexy Beast which has a similar setup, except it’s an old “co-conspirator” who visits with some demands). But you better be sure that you have wonderful turns of external plot to keep the reader/viewer/listener engaged. Sexy Beast certainly does.

If you want to explore the moral or internal conflicts inherent in a father-in-law using his son-in-law’s love for his daughter as a means to maintain his country club lifestyle, though, you better add an internal element to the storytelling. The way to do that is to build in a subconscious object of desire.

So what could be the subconscious/intangible/object of desire for this lead character?

It could be a lot of things. And again, it will depend upon the genre you’ve chosen to tell this story, or alternatively you could choose the genre that best fits the subconscious desire you wish to explore and make the Story less externally Archplot driven and more internally Miniplot driven.

He could want his father-in-law to at long last give him the respect that he deserves. Subconsciously the protagonist may believe that if he hands over a chunk of cash to the old man, he’ll at long last gain his approval. For not only taking such good care of his daughter, but for now providing for him too. In this case, the subconscious desire could be to place an authority figure in debt as proof of inner power. This would be a choice to explore among the options in the internal Status genre—pathetic, admiration, tragic, or sentimental. (More on the Internal Status Genre to come)

Or, the protagonist could want his wife to finally appreciate just how difficult it is for him to provide the lifestyle that she has grown accustomed. Perhaps if she sees how he makes the sausage, she will no longer take for granted his hard work and sacrifice. In this case his subconscious desire could be to gain unconditional love. That would be a Status internal genre choice as well.

It is in these two objects of desire, Money and Respect (or Unconditional Love) that will drive the two “plots” within the global story. These two strands are what screenwriters refer to as Storyline A and Storyline B.

Storyline A is the external Story to achieve the conscious object of desire.

Storyline B is the internal Story to achieve the subconscious object of desire.

After an inciting incident that throws your character’s life out of balance, he will go on a quest to achieve his object of desires. He’s got to make plans and execute the plans. But once he takes up the quest, forces of antagonism ally against him. His plans go wrong. He adjusts. His next plans go wrong. He adjusts. The stakes escalate until he’s at the point of no return. His life will never be the same if he achieves or doesn’t achieve his goals.

There are three levels of conflict that can thwart his plans to get his external and internal objects of desire.

  1. Inner conflict is the Hamlet-esque inside-our-head dithering that we all do whenever faced with a difficult task. If we can’t beat down the Resistance coming from the voices in our heads, we’ll never get anything done.
  2. Personal conflict is provided by an antagonist character or characters in the Story. And there must be a living and breathing character or characters intent on keeping our hero from reaching his goal. Without them, the Story gets more difficult to pull off than Finnegan’s Wake.
  3. Extra-personal conflict is the threat of being ostracized by society at large or one’s particular tribe of eccentrics.   Or, it’s a naturally occurring force like a hurricane or a frigid winter. Acts of God are extra-personal as are group and peer pressure in general.

You must take great pains to make the conflicts in your story varied and surprising. How varied depends upon your choice of global content genre. Again which of the three kinds of antagonism that become the focal point of your story is dependent upon your choice of genre. A coming of age story will hinge on Inner conflict, while a James Bond movie will be far more concerned with Personal conflict and a survival thriller on Extra-Personal conflict.

The Quest for the external (conscious) and internal (subconscious) objects of desire is the heart and soul of Story. What the character wants (money) versus what the character needs (unconditional love). It’s the foundation. And whenever you get stumped, you need to evaluate how surprising and interesting your character’s quest to achieve his wants and needs are.

Here’s the big takeaway:

Focusing on the struggle to get objects of desire will make up for almost every other kind of Story misstep.

But wishy-washy choices for the objects of desire will destroy the most stunning secondary subplots. Without fail.

The reader/viewer/listener has to attach and invest themselves in the story’s protagonist/s. And the way he/she attaches is through the fictional character’s pursuit of objects of desire. There’s no secret to the fact that we’re all striving to get what we want. So it’s only natural that we’ll invest ourselves in characters pursuing someone or something that they think will raise their circumstances. Even if we don’t like what they’re going after.

Just about every one of Edith Wharton’s novels features a lead character who is not a particularly appealing human being. Would any one of us want to step into Lily Bart’s shoes in The House of Mirth? But, despite her shortcomings, her longing to be accepted in High Society is irresistible to us. We simply root for her even as she makes mistake after mistake after mistake.

No matter what Story you are writing—a sci-fi love story, a master detective mystery, a fantastical allegory etc.—you must have compelling objects of desire for your lead protagonist. If the protagonist doesn’t want anything or doesn’t need anything, you don’t have a Story. The book won’t work.

So obviously, the first job you have as your own editor is to specify exactly what your lead character/s want and what they need. What they will strive to attain and what it subconsciously represents to them in their deepest self must be clearly defined. If it isn’t clear to you as the writer, there is no possibility that it will be clear to the reader.

The rough manuscript that you have in your drawer or the one you are preparing to write may be perfectly well crafted and may have compelling events, but without the foundation quests for an external and internal object of desire, it will not “feel” right to a reader or viewer. It will not compel people. It will seem sterile…too intellectual…too uninvolving. It just won’t work.

Whenever you get stuck telling your story…go back to the foundation…the quest for conscious external and subconscious internal objects of desire. Are you making those quests in your lead character clear? If you aren’t, you must call up your inner demolition crew, break up that old cracked foundation and throw it away. And then go back to these two questions:

What does my character want?

What does my character need?

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.

16 comments on “Story Fuel

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    I really needed to read this one today – I have been feeling stuck and you’ve helped me to identify that I’ve let the rope slacken on my protagonist’s quests. I think Story Grid could adopt this is an AKA: “DIY Tool Repair Kit for Novelists.” It might not be sexy, but it is exactly what you’re giving us…each of these posts is amazing and helpful beyond measure! Thanks so much!

  2. Love the deeper dive into conflict. I forget that there are three sources, and as a result, my books so far haven’t been as strong as they could be.

    The good stuff in my next one will be due, in part, to your good work, Shawn. Thanks.

  3. Paul says:

    Ahhh conflict! This helps me tremendously, and confirms my current life path:

    Thank you.

  4. In my opinion, those two questions at the end are the most important ones to ask both in storytelling, and in our own lives. “What do i want/need?” If we ask ourselves those daily we’ll do quite well in crafting a happy ending for ourselves. Thanks again, Shawn!

  5. PJ Reece says:

    Yes, good, want and need. I see the “want” as connected to the “need” in the following way — when the want is thwarted, then needs make themselves heard. And all that energy that went to achieving the want is now freed up to serve the need. For this reason, I see every good story as, firstly, a protagonist failing to get what he/she wants. What the protagonist wants, don’t give it to him — that’s my motto.

  6. Kent Faver says:

    “Focusing on the struggle to get objects of desire will make up for almost every other kind of Story misstep.”

    So, as an example, Field of Dreams – Ray’s object was to build the field, keep it out of foreclosure, and to take the steps necessary for the players to find the field? Yes to all, or was his object to meet his father? Or, was that the internal struggle? Trying to wrap my brain around “objects of desire”. Thanks Shawn!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Kent,
      FIELD OF DREAMS is a Mini-plot story about Men reconciling their anger/disappointments with the trajectory of their lives. There is the Doctor who could have been a ballplayer. The James Earl Jones character who is the angry writer. There’s Shoeless Joe Jackson… And there’s the lead, Ray. They all Need Something. The way they get it is to pursue their personal WANTS with the game of baseball. They all Want to play ball again…before life became so complicated. Geez, don’t we all?

      The external WANT for Ray is to Save his Farm while also being true to the Authentic Voice within him. If he builds the field, “he” will come. Ray doesn’t know who “he” is. He just goes with it. The Internal Need for Ray is a Redemption plot (I think…it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the movie). He needs to make peace with his past (his father). So the Want is Ray’s quest to do what he can to save the farm but remain true to the voice (he chooses voice over farm just about every time even when he shouldn’t). And the need is to make peace with his father/himself.
      Anyway, I love that movie.
      I’d need to go a major dip into the novel and the film again to be more specific, but generally, I think that’s the gist.

  7. Wow, I’m running out of excuses to not get this book done. I have a much better grasp on what I need to do now.

  8. Jule Kucera says:

    This is so helpful. I feel like I’m back in college and my brain is being stretched with ideas. Kent, thank you for your question and Shawn, thank you for answering because examples help me understand.

  9. Will Douglas says:

    Thanks Shawn.

  10. steve hill says:

    Hi Shawn, so what do you think the internal genre is for Gates of Fire?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Steve,
      Steve P. uses his narrator/protagonist as a stand in for the reader. We learn about what those crazy Spartans were all about as Xeo does. The Spartans were mythic figures (team mascots) before Gates of Fire made them flesh and blood. I don’t know anyone who has read that book who doesn’t have respect and admiration for that culture…who knows where we’d be without it. Xeo and the reader move from ignorance to knowing.

      1. steve hill says:

        Thanks so much Shawn, I didn’t expect a reply so fast! Big help in the story I’m writing.

  11. Robert Guidi says:

    Every single piece of your content knocks me across the room. You have at once shown me the mountain, the map and the ice pick. I’m on my way to base camp because of you.

  12. It’s 1775 and a 25 year old Virginian is going into the wilderness of Kentucky to claim free land (what he WANTS). He has heard his father talk about Indian torture in the French and Indian Wars and has developed an uncontrolled fear of Indians. He NEEDS to overcome that fear in order to stand and fight when the Shawnees attack. By confessing his intense fear to a friend, he learns that others share his fear and he’s able to perform despite his feelings. He doesn’t break and run when the fighting begins, but he remains in conflict. Nevertheless, after Kentucky he joins the North Carolina Militia and serves two enlistments as a captain fighting the British in the Revolutionary War. Without the fear of Indian torture, he performs better, but wonders if independence is worth all the suffering and whether war is ever justified.

    Does this work for WANT and NEED?

    Many thanks for your generous contribution to author development.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Virginia,
      I’m afraid I can’t really give you a definitive answer here. I’d need to read the book to be able to offer anything I’d stand by. But I would say that I think NEED isn’t so much about “finding courage” as it is “finding and integrating personal truth.” Needs are fulfilled or not fulfilled when the lead character is forced to confront the truth about themselves. Hope that helps.

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