In other articles I discuss everything from story structure and adaptation to pitching and marketing your story. But here I want to cover something much more basic – something that always sounds simple, but which is one of the most difficult principles for writers and speakers to understand and apply to their stories: the essential component of all successful stories is the hero’s pursuit of a compelling desire.
Your primary goal as a storyteller must be to elicit emotion in the reader and the audience. Whatever else you hope to achieve with your story – money, fame, artistry, a celebration of humanity or an enlightened, empowered audience – you will do so only when you keep your audience emotionally involved.
This necessary emotional involvement is realized only when the reader or audience experiences the events of your story through your characters. Without giving your hero some compelling desire to pursue, your story will have no forward movement, your audience will have nothing to root for, and your reader will have no compelling reason to keep turning the page.
It is this necessary desire that defines your story concept. Ask someone what Independence Day is about, and they’ll probably say something like, “It’s about a group of people trying to stop an alien invasion.” Or read the log lines for movies and TV episodes in TV Guide. Almost all of them state or imply the primary desires the heroes will pursue.
Certain qualities distinguish an effective outer motivation and ensure its potential for creating an emotional experience:
1. The desire must be visible. I use the term OUTER MOTIVATION because it is outwardly apparent to the audience as they watch the action on the screen. Whether it’s stopping Mr. Smith and saving the world in The Matrix Revolutions, reuniting with his high school dream girl in There’s Something About Mary, or Finding Nemo in that film, the heroes of those films are doing things to achieve their desires, not simply revealing themselves through dialogue.
In other words, outer motivation does not involve the desire for invisible, inner qualities like success, love, belonging, greed, revenge or self-worth. Any one of these might provide a reason your hero is pursuing her visible goal, but their not the goal itself.
In the movie In The Line Of Fire, Frank Horrigan wants desperately to make up for a moment of cowardice and hesitation early in his career. But this need doesn’t give the story a plot, it only justifies the real outer motivation: to stop the assassin from killing the current President.
2. The desire must have a clearly implied endpoint. Not only do we see or imagine your hero pursuing this visible goal throughout the story, we can easily envision what achieving the goal will look like. We know when we watch Con Air that we will ultimately see a showdown between the hero and the villain. We may not know all the details, or exactly where and how it will occur, but we know that the outcome will resolve the story.
When you write or tell a story, you are taking the reader or audience on a journey. But this isn’t one of those trips where you jump in the car and say, “Let’s just go for a drive and see where we end up.” In the most successful stories, you are subconsciously telling the audience, “I’m taking you to this specific destination. I won’t tell you all the roadblocks we’ll encounter, or all the sights you’ll see along the way, but I promise that when the story is over, you’ll be here.”
Think of your story as a race. Your hero is trying desperately to reach the finish line before some other character or force of nature can stop her. If you don’t tell audience where the finish line is, how will they know what to anticipate or root for?
This is another way that an outer motivation is distinguished from some inner desire for self-worth – what I term a character’s INNER MOTIVATION. It’s fine if your hero wants acceptance, for example, but how will the audience know he’s achieved it unless you link that acceptance to some visible outer motivation we can anticipate? In Amadeus, a jealous Salieri wants to get revenge on God (an invisible goal) for making Mozart a musical genius. This instills in him a visible desire to destroy Mozart. His desire to murder Mozart that drives the story forward, gives it a clearly defined endpoint, and keeps the audience emotionally involved.
3. Your hero must desperately want the desire. If your main character is only mildly interested in achieving her outer motivation, how can you expect the audience to care whether she succeeds? It’s your hero’s burning passion that will draw people into your story, and will make the outcome of vital importance to them as well.
4. Your hero must actively pursue the desire. Your characters can’t simply sit around talking about how much they’d like to have money, success or the love of a beautiful woman. They must take control of their lives and use every ounce of strength, courage and intelligence they have to rob the bank, stop the serial killer or win the love of the prom queen.
Nor can your hero simply observe other characters pursue a goal. By definition, the hero is the character whose desire defines the plot of the movie.
Passive heroes destroy interest and emotion. How can we root for someone who takes no action? Your protagonist can be passive at the beginning of your story, but before too long, he has to declare, “I WANT THAT!” and go after his desire.
5. It must be within your hero’s power to achieve her desire. You never want your hero to wait to be rescued, in any sense of the word. If she’s pursued by a killer, trapped in a mineshaft, or cornered by dinosaurs, she can’t wait helplessly for some superhero to arrive.
This is why very few successful movies are about elections, beauty pageants or the Pillsbury Bake-Off: the outcome of such situations is determined by voters or judges, not by the one pursuing the prize. (Yes, I know that Miss Congeniality was about a beauty pageant. But what was her Outer Motivation? To stop the killer – not to be picked as the winner.)
The exception to this principle is the courtroom drama, where a judge or jury ultimately decides whether the hero wins or loses. But notice that in most successful legal dramas, such as A Few Good Men, Class Action or Runaway Jury, the verdict is preceded by a scene where the hero confronts an antagonistic witness, reveals key evidence, or makes an impassioned summary that transforms the outcome into a foregone conclusion.
6. Your hero must put everything on the line to achieve the desire. Again, the more passionate, determined and courageous your hero is in pursuit of his quest, the greater the audience’s own emotional involvement, and the greater their elation when he succeeds.
This principle is fairly evident in action movies and thrillers like Terminator 3, X2 or Panic Room, where heroes put their lives on the line to save the world, stop the bad guys or escape from danger. But it’s also true in any successful love story or comedy. The Robin Williams character in Birdcage risks embarrassment, humiliation, self-esteem, the loss of his lover and the loss of his own son’s love and happiness in his attempt to convince his future in-laws that he’s a straight man. And again, in A Few Good Men Lt. Kaffee risks his career and even the possibility of being arrested when he grills Col. Jessup on the witness stand.
In romantic comedies and love stories like Sleepless In Seattle, Good Will Hunting and As Good As It Gets, the heroes must take the greatest emotional risk of all: exposing themselves to rejection, fear and pain as they let go of identities that have brought them a lifetime of protection. But they find the courage to put everything on the line as they pursue their love and their destiny.
7. Your hero’s desire must be resolved at the climax of the story. You may add ambiguous elements to your story, and even leave your hero with an uncertain future. But you must resolve both the Outer and Inner Motivations by the end of the film. Your reader and audience have spent two hours rooting for your hero to achieve these compelling desires. You can’t now leave them hanging and expect your story to either advance your career or transform your audience.