What does the hero of your story want? Lots of things. And that’s the problem. Sifting through all those desires to pinpoint the ones that drive your story can be confusing and overwhelming. So in this series of articles I’m breaking down a hero’s primary goals to help you identify the ones that are essential, and how to manage them all while keeping your story simple and powerful.
#2: Inner Motivations
As I discussed last time, the Outer Motivation is a character’s specific, visible goal. When we read or hear what it is, we can picture what achieving it would look like. And our image of that moment of victory will be pretty close to anyone else’s.
This is the finish line the hero wants to accomplish by the end of the story. It defines the story in terms of plot, and it’s what your readers or audiences are invested in emotionally.
Once you’ve identified your hero’s outer motivation, then you want to ask why? Why is this external desire so important? What deeper desire does your hero believe achieving this visible goal will fulfill? Acceptance? Belonging? Success? Love? Revenge? Fulfillment?
In other words, what is your hero’s Inner Motivation?
I use the term inner motivation because these desires are invisible – they are states of mind characters want to experience. While visible goals are vivid and specific, inner motivations are more general and universal.
In A Quiet Place, Lee Abbott (John Krasinski)’s outer motivation is to stop the aliens from killing his family. But beyond his own survival instinct, his inner motivation is to be a good husband and father. He believes his path to self worth is to do whatever he can to protect and provide for those he loves so deeply.
So why does this matter to you as the storyteller?
Because you want audiences and readers to identify with your hero’s desire; you want them to connect with your hero by recognizing a deeper longing that they have also experienced. We may not have battled aliens, but the desire of a parent to give everything for their children resonates deeply across all cultures.
Such a powerful inner motivation will give more depth and meaning to your hero’s arc. Only if we know what drives your hero can we understand and be touched by their courage, determination and growth.
Your hero’s inner motivation isn’t always the right path to fulfillment. It’s possible that your hero will discover that his inner desires have taken him in the wrong direction.
Perhaps what your hero needs to learn – and the deeper message of your story – is that revenge, status, sex, riches or power over others aren’t the best ways to achieve real happiness and fulfillment.
If you’re looking for an emotionally impactful autobiographical story to deliver on the stage or the page, consider relating a misguided inner motivation from your own past. Perhaps you were consumed by your desire for money and success above everything else. Then, when you found yourself lonely, ill from stress, regretful or unfulfilled, you saw the price you had paid for these empty pursuits. This realization, and your resulting transformation, can move your followers toward a better inner motivation than yours had been.
Even righteous heroes striving for wealth or justice, or who want to change the world, might discover that wanting those things is fine, but the unexpected outcomes of the courage they find are connection, love and fulfillment.
In Part 3 of this series I’ll explore the desires that frighten your hero: Longings and Needs.
What does the hero of your story want? Lots of things. And that’s the problem. Sifting through all those desires to pinpoint the ones that drive your story can be confusing and overwhelming. So in six sequential articles, I’m going to break down a hero’s primary goals to help you identify the ones that are essential, and how to manage them all while keeping your story simple and powerful.
#1: The Outer Motivation
I’m beginning with the Outer Motivation, not because it appears first, but because it is essential.
This is the hero’s goal that will define your story, determine its structure, and keep your audiences (or readers, viewers and prospects) engaged and invested in your hero’s success.
I use the term Outer Motivation because this desire is outwardly visible. But don’t worry about the jargon. Just think of it as the finish line your hero is desperate to cross.
The outer motivation is not a feeling (happiness), or an abstract concept (success), or some ongoing condition (health). It’s a specific goal that your audiences can envision as soon as they read or hear what it is. And that image is pretty much the same for everyone you’re addressing.
Common visible goals in stories are winning a competition (The Karate Kid), winning the love of another character (Titanic), stopping some threat (Black Panther), escaping from a bad situation (Get Out), rescuing a person or a group in danger (Taken), and retrieving something of value (Raiders of the Lost Ark).
If you’re a consultant, entrepreneur or public speaker, your story might be about how you won a major client using your marketing process; how your financial advice helped a client stop the foreclosure of her house; what life lesson you learned when you escaped from an avalanche; or how you got back (retrieved) a major client you had lost.
In my 35+ years of consulting with professional storytellers and business leaders, the two biggest problems I encounter are 1) their stories are way too complicated; and 2) there is no clear outer motivation for the heroes of their stories.
Almost any other weakness in your own stories can be traced back to one of those two issues. But once you have clearly defined your hero’s outer motivation and clarified that visible goal, everything else in your story can fall into place.
Part 2 of this series will reveal a second form of desire: your hero’s Inner Motivation.
#2: Inner Motivations
#3: Longings & Needs
#4: Preliminary Goals and Ultimate Objectives
#5: The Desire for Sameness
#6: Revealing Your Hero’s Desires
In response to our survey asking about how our followers are using stories, and what challenges you’re encountering, screenwriter Taha Ali asked what it means when “the stakes are high” for a hero. I replied by first asking him for a list of some of his favorite films to use as examples. Using one of the films from his list, here is my explanation of why this is an essential element of any story you’re telling, whether it’s for film, fiction or business, and how to maximize its emotional power.
The simplest way to understand the idea of STAKES for the hero (or for any character in a story) is to ask, “What will this character lose if he fails to achieve his goal?”
Every hero in every story must want something. The pursuit of that goal defines the story and moves the plot forward. If the hero is risking nothing, and has nothing to lose if he fails, readers and audiences aren’t likely to be emotionally involved, because the conflict doesn’t seem to matter very much.
In action films (Eagle Eye, San Andreas), horror films (It, Scream) or thrillers (Pulp Fiction, Untraceable), the heroes’ (and others’) lives are on the line. If these heroes fail they will die (or people they care about will).
But let’s consider a movie like The Social Network. In Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, hero Mark Zuckerberg wants to create Facebook and achieve a million followers. And in the bookending story, he wants to successfully defend a lawsuit claiming he stole the idea for Facebook.
But Zuckerberg won’t literally die if he fails to achieve those goals. It just feels like that to him, because Facebook is the most important thing in his life. It represents great wealth and success. But more that than it means status, significance and the kind of connection to others he can’t admit he longs for. So that’s what’s at stake for him.
Whatever kind of story you’re telling, your audience must empathize with your hero. That way, what’s most important to your hero is what’s most important to them.
In a love story, we must believe that the romance character is the hero’s destiny. In many dramas (The King’s Speech, The Post, Ocean’s 8, The Greatest Showman, Wonder, I, Tonya), the heroes’ desires represent their calling, their duty, the ideals they live by, or the only hope they have of achieving any kind of significance or sense of belonging. Failure for these heroes will render their lives unfulfilled, meaningless or hopeless.
In other words, ALL of these heroes believe their lives are at stake in some way. And these are the stories that elicit our deepest emotional involvement.
Last week I once again was part of a wonderful, almost indescribable experience. I had the privilege of joining World Champions of Public Speaking Darren LaCroix and Mark Brown at GET COACHED TO SPEAK, one of the monthly boot camps for Darren’s Stage Time University.
This was my third time participating in this workshop, and I’ve never able to fully explain – or describe – the magic that happens at this event. It’s both exciting and humbling to get to work with Darren and Mark, not just for their absolute mastery of all elements of speaking, but also for their humor and passion, and the compassion and love they show each of the speakers.
The connections created among everyone in the room, and the transformative results for the participants and their speeches are wonderful to experience.
Think of the scene in Amadeus where Salieri is furiously writing down the notes being dictated to him by Mozart. Salieri is in awe of the music coming seemingly from nothing, and instantly transforming into something glorious.
But who is creating it? Is it Salieri, because he’s the one putting it to paper? Mozart, who is relaying the notes so quickly he cannot possibly be thinking about them? Or is it something greater?
This is when Salieri realizes the sin and futility of blaming God for giving Mozart all the talent. Salieri knows now that both he and Mozart are both simply instruments of God – they are both “mediocrities” (in his words at the end of the film), but blessed to be a part of something so much greater.
It was the same with us last week, I think. It’s the coming together – the connection we had to each other and the speakers and the stories – that brought about the transformation and allowed all of us to experience our essence.
As a storyteller, these moments will occur for you as well. When you let go of concerns about whether what you’re writing is “good,” and about how it compares, and about how others will react, you can experience the deep connection you have with your characters, your readers and yourself.
In those moments, you will be the instrument for bringing to life the power and the emotion of your story, and the transformation that comes from within you – from your own essence.
The most powerful and persuasive stories don’t simply entertain or enlighten – they challenge their readers and audiences to transform – to find the courage to change their thoughts and behaviors in order to achieve a more fulfilling, loving and self-defined existence.
This prescription for how we should all live our lives is what I refer to as a story’s THEME.
The word is used in other ways, depending on the source. Some think of theme as the concept or log line of the story; some use it to refer to the message of the film, or the general conflict it addresses (the insanity of war; the struggles of intimate relationships; the causes and consequences of racism and bigotry).
But to me a theme must be universal – it must apply to anyone who sees or hears or reads the story, regardless of whether they have ever experienced the specific situations the characters face.
Theme relates not so much to the hero’s situation, therefore, but to his or her arc. A well told story tells us we must find the courage the hero exhibits, and transform in the same way.
The key question to ask is, “How does my hero/protagonist transform and grow emotionally during the course of the story?” In other words, what must she find the emotional courage to do in order to achieve her visible goal (such as winning the love of her romance character, winning the competition, or achieving her financial objective)?
And it follows that if there is a particular theme you wish to develop with your story, you must create a hero who lacks that quality at the beginning of the story, and fulfills your theme by the end. So if your theme is “honesty is the best policy”, your hero must begin the story dishonest (due to some emotional fear) and find the courage to exhibit honesty by the end.
Let’s consider Mia (Emma Stone), one of the two heroes of the film LA LA LAND. Her initial goal is to succeed as an actress – specifically to get cast in a major role by putting on a one-woman show (her outer motivation). Her second goal is to win the love of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), and as in most love stories, the romantic desire becomes more important. But for now let’s stay focused on her goal as an actress.
When her one-woman show is a disaster, she returns home to retreat into the safe world she occupied before she ever came to Hollywood. But with Sebastian’s encouragement, she finds the courage to go back and give it another try, in spite of her fear of being crushed by yet another rejection and failure.
So her arc is the transformation from a wannabe actress playing it safe to one who risks exposing herself through a self-written show and finally puts everything on the line by returning for one more audition.
Few people watching this film were actresses, or Hollywood dreamers, or girlfriends of Ryan Gosling. But we all have faced fears of rejection and humiliation and failure. So the theme of LA LA LAND is telling us all that to be fully alive and individuated, we must keep going after what we’re passionate about – must keep pursuing our dreams, regardless of whatever setbacks and failures we experience.
And this is a situation we will all encounter, and a prescription we should all live by. It is universal.
The same holds true if you’re writing a novel or an inspirational speech or a marketing campaign. Your audiences and readers may not have experienced the events of your story about running a marathon or becoming an Internet marketer or succeeding at business. But they should all identify with the fears and inner conflicts those characters faced, and they must all benefit from the courage you’re recommending through your story’s theme.
In the outstanding film HIDDEN FIGURES, screenwriters Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi faced the formidable task of immediately introducing their three major characters, and making them unique and memorable. All three are African American women about the same age, and all three are scientists working at NASA.
So take a close look at this opening sequence:
EXT. ROAD – DAY
We float down towards a lone stretch of road in the middle of nowhere. Infinity in all directions.
INT. CAR – DAY
KATHERINE GOBLE (38), DOROTHY VAUGHAN (40s) and MARY JACKSON are inside the car, driving to their jobs at NASA. All three are African American.
Terrific, isn’t it?
No. It’s not.
The first paragraph does a good job of drawing us into the setting. And it actually is from Schroeder and Melfi’s screenplay for HIDDEN FIGURES.
The second scene I made up, to show you how NOT to introduce characters – regardless of whether your story is a script, a novel, a speech, an email or a webinar.
Besides the fact that this lame introduction gives no description of the characters beyond age and race, and includes something the audience wouldn’t know from watching the screen (that they work at NASA), it also fails to make them distinct. Any readers of such a passage would have no way of recognizing – or remembering – which character was which as the read further in the script.
So let’s look at what the screenwriters DID do to make certain readers and audiences would know right away who each character is….
First of all, Schroeder and Melfi don’t introduce all three in the same paragraph – a sure way to confuse your readers and audiences. So Katherine has already been introduced in a prologue as a young math prodigy being enrolled in a new school appropriate for her genius.
This establishes Katherine as the hero of the film. Even though Dorothy and Mary are critical to the story, neither is given her own separate introduction, indicating that Katherine is the central protagonist.
The prologue also shows Katherine imagining patterns and geometric figures as she gazes out windows, indicating she is a bit withdrawn, escaping from the real world into the world of mathematics. When we then meet her as an adult, she is again staring out the window and up into space, until her reverie is broken by Dorothy’s voice from outside the car.
The screenplay then reads:
DOROTHY VAUGHAN slides out from under the car. No-nonsense, brilliant, tough, mechanically gifted.
I am generally a stickler for avoiding any screenplay description that the audience of a film won’t know from watching the screen. But I can forgive this instance because it tells the actor how to play the character, it will be immediately illustrated in this sequence, and it clearly contrasts her pragmatic, get-the-job-done personality with that of the daydreaming Katherine.
Now the screenplay introduces us to Mary:
At the back of the car, sitting on the trunk, we find MARY JACKSON (30ish) putting on lipstick. Mary’s a spirited beauty, free-tongued, unbridled.
Katherine!? Quit starting off into space! Turn the damn car over!
Mary bangs on the rear window. Katherine snaps out of her trance.
So now we have a third character, quite different from Katherine or Dorothy. Mary is not just a beauty; we sense her looks and the impression she makes is important to her, because we first see her as she’s putting on makeup. She also carries an air (or at least a façade) of slight superiority and defiance.
Now that these three women have been introduced, their different personalities are reinforced, and our empathy for them greatly strengthened, with the appearance of the white cop.
Just then, far in the distance, Mary sees a police car coming over the hill…
Dorothy and Katherine look. See the car coming up fast.
No crime in a broken down car.
No crime being Negro either.
Button it up, Mary. No one wants to go to jail behind your mouth.
So Dorothy is calm, strong and pragmatic, Mary is defiant, Katherine just wants to avoid conflict.
These qualities are then reinforced throughout the interaction with the cop. He accuses Mary of being disrespectful, and she has to back down. He asks for identification and Katherine “jumps in” (in the words of the script) and says, “We sure do. We’re on our way to work. At Langley.” She wants to smooth things over and make certain they can get to work.
And when the white cop says, “NASA. That’s somethin’. Had no idea they hired –,” here’s how the script reads:
He stops himself from saying “coloreds.” Or worse.
There are quite a few women working in the Space Program, sir.
She saves him the embarrassment.
In just three script pages, we have met three major – and memorable – characters, we get a clear picture of their personalities, and we won’t have any problem keeping them distinct in our minds, even in script form, where there are no actresses to show their differences in appearance.
Of course, this opening does far more than just introduce characters effectively. It lays out what will be the essential conflict in the story, and the inner journeys they will take.
In spite of their brilliance and uniqueness, Katherine, Dorothy and Mary will repeatedly have to accommodate – and be subjected to – an environment where to a great extent it IS a “crime to be Negro.”
Each in her own way, these three heroic women will have to find the courage to stand up to a bureaucracy, and a society, that wants to crush their talent, and their dreams, just because of their race and gender. And by doing so, Katherine, Dorothy and Mary will not only find their own destinies, they will change the world.
When you begin your own stories using the principles that HIDDEN FIGURES does, and you make your own characters as distinct and memorable, you, too, can touch your readers and audiences more deeply and powerfully.