The Story Spinal Cord

For today’s Story Grid Bonus, here’s more about the crucial role of NEED, your protagonist’s subconscious Object of Desire.

I’ve been talking about Story Spine—the critical Story within the Story that sucks readers into deep emotional connection. And I’ve put forth that what your lead character wants—the micro scene-to-scene little wants that build to the macro global Want—serve as the Spine’s vertebrae. And that in order to improve your storytelling viscerally, you should track the wants in every scene in your Global Story.

So if you’re Thomas Harris writing The Silence of the Lambs, you make sure that it is clear to the reader that Clarice Starling has the big Want (becoming a recognized badass FBI agent) right in the front part of her cerebral cortex as she pursues the micro wants in each scene. Her actions demonstrate that she believes she will get her big Want by doing the investigation support work for the powers that can ultimately grant her desire (Jack Crawford etc.).

Again, the more tightly you focus on the vertebrae of your Story Spine quest (the protagonist mission to get a conscious want), the more fully will your reader engage. They’ll emotionally attach to your work if you make the successes and failures of your dynamic characters clear. They’ll root for your protagonist in much the same way that they root for themselves.

In the last post I described an additional Story Grid method/tool to evaluate your micro scene-to-scene wants in pursuit of your lead character’s Macro Want. By adding a couple of columns to your Story Grid Spreadsheet will allow you to track whether or not your protagonist is failing or succeeding in moving closely to their Macro/Global Want from scene to scene. After you’ve analyzed the “wants,” you’ll discover whether or not there is a progression from smaller wins and losses to bigger wins and losses until the character ultimately gets or loses her Global Want.

If you track the micros wants, you’ll be able to tell if your Story Spine is strong. And you’ll be able to pinpoint where you are going off track. Where you need to escalate the stakes. Where there will be opportunities to surprise your reader. Those places where you can turn the tables on the reader’s expectations. Denying something that the reader thinks is assured to the protagonist is a great way to increase narrative drive. It will shock them.

The climactic moments at the end of The Silence of the Lambs when Clarice Starling is getting very close to Jame Gumb are a great example. Just when she has a major break in finding Gumb, she hears from FBI mission control that Crawford and company have already found him, which leads to a personal crisis.  Should she abandon her investigation? Or continue?

These opportunities in your own work will reveal themselves if you tightly focus on the Story Spine vertebrae, the wants.

But what of Need?

Where does Need live in the Story Spine?

Need is the spinal cord, the thing the vertebrae are protecting.  It’s the electric undercurrent Truth that your protagonist and antagonist are running toward or away from.  The power source that turns a book into an all night read.

Let’s go back to the core definition of Story Need.

The need is your protagonist’s (and antagonist’s) subconscious Object of Desire. They don’t know consciously what their quest is really all about…they’re committed to getting their Want.  They think that their Want and their Need are the same thing.

They aren’t.

Will they get what they Need? Or not? Success or Failure here is the thing that creates a catharsis for your reader. Catharsis is that incredible release of pent up emotion. Imagine being able to elicit that with your Story.

If you can create reader catharsis, you are writing at a level that few have ever approached. When was the last time you read a Story that brought forth tears or irrepressible laughter or extraordinary terror or joy or rage? Long…long time ago, I bet.

It’s worth understanding how that higher realm is achieved even if the feat is the equivalent of playing Horowitz quality Chopin.  The higher realm is all about human NEED.

How do you figure out the protagonist’s and antagonist’s Needs?

When a Story’s Spine is perfectly constructed, you’ll discover the need of the protagonist (and the antagonist) as the gooey center of his/her Macro want. In other words, the Macro/Global Want serves as the crust that envelops the Macro/Global Need. The Want is the vertebrae of the Story Spine, but the Need is the spinal cord, the critical message center.

The Needs of protagonists and antagonists are made up of those indispensable subconscious things that every single human being is searching for…an understanding of who they are and why they are on earth…those gooey, most often unexplored, centers of our day-to-day existence.

Let’s take a look at The Silence of the Lambs again.  You’re probably growing weary of my analysis of the novel, but it is a pitch perfect example of a perfectly constructed Story Spine.  Plus once you start reading it, it’s just impossible to put down.  Not so with something like Moby Dick

For fun, let’s start with the antagonist, Buffalo Bill/Jame Gumb—the yang to the protagonist Clarice Starling’s yin. Remember that the antagonist is a polar opposite iteration of the protagonist…the character that shares the most with the protagonist, but the one who behaves in diametrically opposed ways.

Buffalo Bill’s Macro Want—like Clarice Starling’s Macro Want to move up the ladder at the FBI—is a masquerade of a deep subconscious Need in Jame Gumb.

What do I mean by that?

In their third meeting, Hannibal Lecter schools the ambitious Clarice Starling about Buffalo Bill. Lecter, while seemingly playing games with Starling to amuse himself, is actually giving Starling the clues necessary to piece together what motivates him. And one particular clue, a lead that reveals Lecter’s clinical diagnosis of Buffalo Bill, will help save Starling’s life. It also reveals Buffalo Bill’s subconscious need.

In Chapter 22 of the book, Lecter discusses his new cellmate Sammie’s affliction with Clarice. Sammie, seemingly incapable of rational thought, has written a poem





Lecter asks Starling what she thinks of the poem.

Starling rightly hypothesizes that it demonstrates Sammie’s ability to see “a causal relationship between his behavior and his aims…” It is in this ability that Lecter advises Starling that Sammie is a treatable schizophrenic, a catatonic schizoid, not the hebephrenic variety that he has been misdiagnosed as by the “experts” the FBI relies on.

“Can you smell his sweat? That peculiar goatish odor is trans-3-methyl-2 hexenoic acid. Remember it, it’s the smell of schizophrenia.”

As you’ll recall, at the climax of the entire Story, Buffalo Bill/Jame Gumb hunts Starling in the pitch black darkness of his cellar. He has on night vision goggles and Starling is at his mercy. Thomas Harris drops in the following one sentence description that tumbles all the way back to this Sammie discussion in Chapter 22.

Heavy in her nostrils the smell of the goat.

Thus Buffalo Bill, like Sammie, is schizophrenic.

In a later conversation, Lecter tells Starling that Buffalo Bill’s Want is to become a woman. Remember that the Antagonist’s Want in a thriller is called the MacGuffin.

Like his fellow schizophrenic Sammie, Buffalo Bill also sees a causal relationship between his behavior (homosexual relationships) and his aims. That is, he believes that his homosexual behavior has been caused by his inner true self, which because he is attracted to men, he deduces is female. So Buffalo Bill aims to consciously become a woman in order to get back to equilibrium…what he believes is his true self. That’s his want.

So the vertebrae of Buffalo Bill/Jame Gumb’s Story Spine is made up of the success or failure of his being able to get his Micro Wants (pieces of flesh from his victims) in order to attain his Macro Want (a woman suit).

But what does Buffalo Bill really Need? What’s the spinal cord of his Story Spine?

Do you think that if Buffalo Bill were successful in becoming a woman, he’d find inner peace?

Doubtful…especially as we know from Lecter that he is not actually transsexual.              “He’s not a transsexual, Clarice. He just thinks he is,”

So what does Buffalo Bill really need? Can he get it?

What Jame Gumb needs is maternal love…he needs to be enveloped by the real presence of his mother, not the VHS images he thinks represents he mother, but his real mother. The truth that Gumb refuses to accept is that his mother was incapable of loving him. She abandoned him. He was an unloved, unwanted, discarded bastard.

Can he face that truth?

Absolutely not.

So he runs from that truth and is so extraordinarily afraid of it that he destroys other human beings to deny it life in his own mind.

So Buffalo Bill’s subconscious Need is to understand the truth of his existence…his arrival on earth was an unwanted accident. He’s God’s lonely man.

As Thomas Harris chose to make him the antagonist of the novel, he’ll refuse to accept the truth…he’ll cling to the elaborate lies he’s told himself until his last breath. That’s what antagonists do.

Let’s take a look at the concept of “Need” a little more closely.

Again, Need is what your protagonist (and antagonist) subconsciously desire. That is, this is the stuff that if fulfilled, will change your character’s entire point of view and understanding of the universe.

If I had to boil down the core need of the universal protagonist in the quest/hero’s journey , I’d have to say what she NEEDs is THE TRUTH. The unvarnished, no-bullshit truth of who she is and why she is here.

This is the stuff that Lecter helps Starling discover about herself. And not coincidentally, the stuff that gives her the ability to save the woman trapped in the cellar, Catherine Martin—an ability to see the world through Jame Gumb’s victims’ eyes.

The story that the protagonist is telling herself in her quest plot is that if she can get what she “WANTs,” she’ll come to a place of understanding and contentment. Her WANT will lead her to a nirvana level of accomplishment and satisfaction. Yes, she believes, she’ll still have ups and downs day to day (those are just unavoidable parts of life) but if she actually gets what she wants, her deepest inner turmoil about who she is and why she is on this planet and what her role is in the greater scheme of the universe will no longer torment her.

When she gets what she wants, she will be recognized as an “important” capable person, “a productive member of society.” All will be well.

In many modern novels, especially the most accomplished thrillers, the protagonist’s conscious belief that attaining what she wants will bring her back to equilibrium is debunked through irony.

Getting what she wants does not bring her peace.

She may “win” the external battle (gets the killer) but she’ll lose her innocence in the process. She’ll find that getting what you want is no comfort. It requires loss.

The Story irony is that while getting what she wants is a positive, what she’ll have to do to get it will have a negative effect on her point of view. So the external value in The Silence of the Lambs ends positive (Starling kills Buffalo Bill), but the internal value ends negative (Starling’s point of view is now negative…her triumph was in spite of the FBI not a product of it…the way she thought the world worked, doesn’t).

And even the external value at the very very end of The Silence of the Lambs turns negative…when the reader comes to understand that the pursuit of Buffalo Bill enabled a far worse killer to gain freedom.

It’s like trading Babe Ruth for a couple of hundred grand to keep your team solvent, only to realize later that the action cursed your team to decades of mediocrity. A win turns out to be a far bigger loss.

This kind of storytelling speaks so clearly to us because it reflects modern reality. Our wants come from our culture…when we attain them, we not only discover that they are valueless, but that we lost something of ourselves in their pursuit.

As Biggie Smalls once wrote, “Mo Money, Mo Problems.”

What the protagonist needs in a thriller (and in every other Story in my opinion) is to confront personal Truth. Once she discovers that Truth, she must take action. She must do something…she must change.

The specific Truth at stake, the spinal cord of the Story within your Story, is dependent upon the genre in which you’ve chosen to write. Another gentle reminder…start with GENRE.

In the thriller, the hero must embrace her Truth and change her behavior. A life previously being all about her and what she wants becomes a life in service to a greater purpose. She must sacrifice herself in the service of others. That’s the heroic transformation.

Or what the character Christopher Moltisanti, played masterfully by Michael Imperioli, in The Sopranos would call a character arc. If you do one thing, watch this clip.

It is the writer’s dilemma in five minutes. I think it’s the finest writing about writing ever. All I got is nightmares!

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


18 comments on “The Story Spinal Cord

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    Thanks for the great book-end to last week’s post! This one is also getting printed so I can keep it in my copy of Story Grid. “Need is the spinal cord, the thing the vertebrae are protecting. It’s the electric undercurrent Truth that your protagonist and antagonist are running toward or away from. The power source that turns a book into an all night read.” This I’ll remember – this is worth the price of admission – as always, thanks!

    P.S. Not growing weary of the SOTL analysis…not even close!

    1. Mary Doyle says:

      Oops – poor figure of speech choice since there is never a price of admission for your wisdom – my bad…

    2. I’m with you, Mary. A failing of my previous writing: I don’t clearly identify the want and need on either side. Big change to make.

  2. Barbara Saunders says:

    This explains for me why my favorite film, Sunset Boulevard, affected me so. I left that theater stunned. Now I can see what Wilder did – the intensity of those needs and wants, the doomed battle to reconcile them, and the horror of every character’s personal dishonesty.

  3. Michael Beverly says:

    Not growing tired of the analysis, it’s very helpful.

    I started watching Breaking Bad again last week. Watching it from the start (my gf had never seen it) before I watch the final season which I haven’t seen yet.

    This series is a great example of character arc and micro v. macro needs.

    One character starts as everyman, stepped on, over looked, passed by. His own son calls him a pussy. Yet he’s the kind of guy society considers “good” and “respectable”.

    His partner starts as a complete failure in the eyes of society. A loser, worthless, scum of the earth, unwanted, unloved, rejected even by his parents.

    Their arcs cross in crazy ways. It’s no wonder this kind of drama is powerful and captivating.

    Its not resistance, it’s research…

    So, my thoughts/question:

    Breaking Bad, in the credits, has different writers. Obviously it’s all managed by the creator, Vince Gilligan, who also writes or co-writes episodes.

    SO: Does the following make sense:

    Vince writes the overall arch, the Great Truth, the macro wants.
    the other writers, when they write episodes, they stick to micro wants…

    the needs of the day?

    Always in service of the Macro?

    And if so, assuming we aren’t outsourcing chapters and scenes, how can we apply the same principle?
    Does it make sense to look at scenes/chapters like episodic dramas?

    Can this serve us or is it a diversion?

    1. Sarah says:

      If you want to watch the writers of Breaking Bad discuss their process somewhat, Sundance made an original series with Jim Rash called The Writers’ Room. It’s available on Netflix streaming. Season 1, episode 1 is Breaking Bad. The series is fun, but they don’t dig into the kind of detail we’ve come to expect from Shawn!

    2. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Michael,
      I think whenever some writing model speaks to you, use it. Coincidentally, I’m writing something now for Steve Pressfield’s site on Friday that talks about Series Novels and Series characters and I site Breaking Bad etc. I think your suggestion to find inspiration in those longform masterpieces from TV (Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, etc.) is a very good one.
      All the best,

  4. Patrick Maher says:

    More thoughtful, more depth and more insight than most. Thanks Shawn.

  5. Love the clip! I’m still laughing…

  6. I promised myself I’d read this post straight thru without taking notes. Ha! Two paragraphs in, I was deconstructing my characters’ wants vs needs. This is gold. I’m working on a series, so I’ll look forward to reading your post on Mr. Pressfield’s site. Thanks so much.

  7. Alec Graf says:

    Clarice, too, was in effect abandoned. But she, unlike Gumb, had been loved.

    Perhaps it’s pushing things too far to read TSOTL as thematically suggesting that parental love made, at the very least, a good part of the difference….?

    1. Alec Graf says:

      And Shawn, thanks for this post — batted it right outta the park, Babe.

  8. Tina Goodman says:

    I just watched the included clip from the Sopranos. (Great clip!) Was that scene actually in the t.v. show? (I haven’t watched the Sopranos so I don’t know much about it. I have nothing against the Sopranos but I try not to watch much t.v.)

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Tina,
      Yes. The Sopranos is definitely an exception to the “everything on TV is terrible rule.” Worth watching if you can stand the violence etc.
      All the best

  9. Wayne says:

    Shawn, thanks for your great work. Just digesting an idea in your wonderful book The Story Grid that genres have their own obligatory scenes. What are the obligatory scenes in a Love Story?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Wayne,
      I could write a whole book on The Love Story, but here are a few off the top of my head.

      1. Lovers meet scene.
      2. Lovers first kiss scene.
      3. Proof of Love Scene.
      4. Lovers break-up
      5. Lovers Reconciliation

      Also remember that you’ll need at least one third party to get in between the lovers. Watch The Philadelphia Story or Brokeback Mountain. Great love stories both. Check for what both films have in common…
      All the best,

  10. Patricia Wilson says:

    Shawn, I just read Wayne’s question re: love stories. Your response seemed somewhat formulaic to me, like a romance novel. That’s not at all what I want to write. I have never read romance novels, but I think I know their conventions, never realizing, however, that every genre has conventions. I want my story to incorporate a love story, but I also want …don’t really know yet what I want, just that my story rises above the conventions of any genre. How might I accomplish that, if my question makes any sense to you at all?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Patricia,
      You need to innovate the obligatory scenes and conventions of your particular genre. Take the story that you don’t care for–a Nokia cell phone– and make it something incredible — an Iphone. Steve Jobs didn’t want to make just another cell phone, like you don’t want to write just a romance, but he still had to put the phone components into his new creation…or it wouldn’t work as a phone.
      Hope that helps.

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