After offering my introductory article on CONFLICT (the one about Tiger Woods), I got a lot of kind and thoughtful responses (thanks, everyone!), including this one from a follower named Dan:
I agree about needing conflict in stories. But I try, and I fail. I am a nice person. Always have been – never in conflicts; same wife for 40 years. So I struggle having my characters do things I could not imagine doing. When I try to include conflict, it comes off like milk toast.
I encounter lots of filmmakers, fiction writers and business leaders who, like Dan, mistakenly believe that conflict must be big, action packed and extraordinary.
Then, because their own lives have been relatively happy, kind, and (oh, no!) ordinary, or because they have no desire or ability to write about comic book battles or violent confrontation, these storytellers can’t – or think they can’t – elicit an emotional response in their readers or audiences.
So before I reveal how to create conflict in your stories, I’d better tell you what conflict actually is.
CONFLICT is simply whatever prevents a character from getting what he wants.
Whatever desire drives your hero towards a compelling goal, something needs to stand in his way. It’s not the goal itself, but the obstacles your hero faces, that keep us leaning into your story, eager to see or hear what’s going to happen next.
So sure, if your hero confronts an alien invasion, a supernatural demon, a crazed serial killer, or a ruthless gang of terrorists, those conflicts can generate lots of thrills and suspense.
But conflict is more than just combat.
What if instead, the obstacles your heroes face involve racial prejudice, political and romantic rivalry, disease, artistic competition, drug abuse, poverty, unwanted pregnancy, dishonesty and corruption?
Some of these conflicts can involve violent confrontation, but they don’t have to. More often they’re revealed through physical weakness, failure, argument, separation, competition, rivalry, lying and manipulation.
And what if those external conflicts are combined with the wounds and fears that create inner conflict? What if your heroes believe they are weak, isolated, unloved, unforgivable, or worthless, and as a result are desperate for wealth, fame, status, power, control, escape, or isolation?
These inner conflicts are what make your stories universal. They tap into the pain and fear we all share, and they give us a sense of the courage that we all long for.
These real, recognizable, everyday conflicts move audiences and readers deeply and powerfully. And storytellers who tap into them can achieve monumental success.
If you don’t believe me, just notice that the lists above are all illustrated in Green Book, Blackklansman, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, Roma, A Star is Born and Vice – all Best Picture nominees at this year’s Academy Awards.
Consider one very small moment in Bohemian Rhapsody. Freddie (Rami Malek) is living in his mansion, alone, and Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) the love of his life, lives next door. He phones her and asks her to do something for him.
I want you to go to your bedroom window. Look out of it.
Freddie turns on a light and gazes up at her far away window.
Do you see me?
Yes, I do.
Now you do the same.
We see Freddie’s look of happiness as a light in Mary’s room appears. Then he asks her to have a drink with him. She tells him it’s late, but he begs her.
Do you have something to drink? Go get it…. Do you have it?
But we see that she’s lying. He toasts her and she pretends she’s raising a glass.
To you, my love.
To you, Freddie.
This scene could not be simpler or quieter. Yet it is filled with conflict – and emotion.
We know Freddie and Mary love each other deeply. But because he is gay, they both realize they can never be fully together. So Freddie, filled with the alienation he has always felt, clings desperately to whatever closeness he can feel with Mary, and whatever trappings of success can numb his pain.
And even though Mary does what she can not to break his heart, she – and we – know she’s drifting away from him.
In this one short sequence, we see Freddie’s longing for love, connection, belonging, significance and the support of his only true friend. But the obstacles that stand in his way – his homosexuality, his inability to find peace with who he really is, and Mary’s own desire for a life of happiness and romantic love – create an abundance of conflict.
This conflict is revealed without big action, pyrotechnics, violence, fighting, or even a raised voice. With just the turning on of a light and minimal dialogue, we experience deep, universal emotion at the pain that lies beneath.
So to Dan I’d say this. Whether you’re creating your signature story for the stage or the page, or longing to write a script or a novel that will change people’s lives, you have plenty of conflict to draw from. Just look to your own history, and your own struggles.
Whatever you have accomplished, it wasn’t without challenges and setbacks and obstacles from the world around you or those closest to you. Whatever got you from where you began to where you are now, that journey wasn’t without hardship and pain. Find those moments of struggle and sadness and ask yourself how you overcame them, or how you learned and grew from your failures.
Look deeper into the fears that held you back, and the moments of quiet courage you’ve found as you moved through your life.
Then look to those closest to you who confronted their own challenges and fears. If you’ve been married 40 years, the two of you had to have struggled through problems and conflicts as you shared your pain and celebrated your triumphs.
Use all of these experiences as a foundation for the conflict you want to introduce into your stories. Then the characters you create will resonate with you and will come to life. Stop trying to write about characters and actions you can’t imagine, and write about those you can, because you’ve seen and experienced their struggles first hand.
These are the stories that will touch your audiences deeply, and these are the stories they long to hear.
(The phrase “Spoiler Alert” has permeated the media so frequently in the last few weeks that it’s probably unnecessary to repeat it. But I’m providing that alert anyway to anyone who hasn’t yet seen the final season of Game of Thrones, and who doesn’t want the ending spoiled.)
As futile – and maybe dangerous – as it may be to enter into the raging battle over the conclusion of Game of Thrones, I’ve become combat weary over the barrage of criticism hurled at the creators of one of the greatest television series ever made. So I feel compelled to weigh in.
The power of great stories is that they remind us who we are, and reveal to us what it means to be human. They can show us parts of ourselves we’ve forgotten, or denied, or never experienced first hand.
In most of the stories I love most, these revelations inspire us, and show us our potential for courage and love and fulfillment. They say, “You, too, can be a hero! Like the hero of the story that enthralls and entertains you, you can transform, stand up for the truth of who you are, do what is right, and connect with the rest of humanity.”
But some great stories choose instead to hold a mirror to the darker sides of our humanity. They remind us of the potential we all carry to be blinded by our wounds and our pain and our anger and our desires.
This, to me, is what Game of Thrones has always done. For the entire series, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, in adapting and then departing from George R. R. Martin’s epic novels, have brilliantly explored the ways that an unchecked desire for power and control and revenge can fracture our relationships and destroy our humanity.
I confess that I, like so many others, was distraught at the end of this season’s Episode 5, “The Bells.” How could Dany – the beautiful, sympathetic, courageous, and sometimes wise character I had loved and rooted for and admired for eight amazing seasons – turn into this vengeful, genocidal instrument of wanton slaughter and mass destruction?
This wasn’t what I wanted at all! I wanted Daenarys, the powerless, abused and enslaved girl who was introduced in the very first episode, to complete her arc and become the strong, loving, forgiving and just leader she was meant to be. I expected her to keep her promise to liberate the people of Kings Landing from their tyrannical queen, not to level their city and burn them alive.
So when Episode 5 ended, I called my brother Jim – a much more devoted and knowledgeable fan than I am – to commiserate. He understood my pain and disappointment, but he pointed out that Wiess and Benioff had been leading us to this moment from that very first episode. Beneath whatever love or compassion or humanity Daenarys might have shown, she was always a Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons and the Breaker of Chains. And in the end, Dany was unable to let go of this identity.
As she gathered her army of warriors and slaves, crucified their oppressors, burned her enemies alive and executed those who wouldn’t bend the knee to her, Khaleesi repeatedly justified her actions by claiming she had to remain the fearsome queen who would rule the Seven Kingdoms and lead her followers to victory and freedom.
So in “The Iron Throne,” the series’ much-maligned final episode, Dany’s story becomes a tragedy. Her inability to let go of her identity as the heir to the Iron Throne leads to her destruction.
Overwhelmed by her sense of abandonment and betrayal, both by her enemies and by everyone she has trusted or loved, she feels threatened and angry and afraid. As she says to Jon, “I don’t have love here. I only have fear.” And so the dragon awakens.
Because she now feels only fear, she protects herself and her identity by ruling with fear. Her essence – the potential she has to be the just and moral leader we want her to be – has succumbed to the threat of losing her destiny.
And like every tragic hero, she’s unable to overcome her fear and do what is right, or loving or fulfilling. In that horrible moment atop Drogon, when she unleashes all her destructive rage, her protective identity wins the battle for her soul. She’s condemned to the loss of her essence – and in this case, her life.
After Daenarys and her armies obliterate all of Kings Landing – the helpless and innocent along with her enemies – she stands before her followers as their queen. When she vows to lead them on a march to liberate “all the people of the world,” Tyrion and Jon see with certainty the leader she has become.
This is where the impact of Game of Thrones’ theme – its lesson to us all – is most powerful.
How often in our history have we whooped and hollered and pounded our spears in the ground, cheering for some leader who has played on our fears and promised us a life of power and glory and safety and superiority?
How many times have we followed these chosen ones on crusades of hatred and destruction, all in the name of bringing freedom and resurrection to our flag, or our God, or to all of mankind?
Again and again, under the spell of these White Walkers, we become wights ourselves, marching aimlessly and mindlessly toward the destruction of all that is good, always in danger of turning the world into the Dark Night.
This is why Tyrion’s climactic speech to the surviving leaders of the Seven Kingdoms is so powerful, and the outcome of the series so right. He pleads for a new order, where instead of might or genealogy or raw ambition, leaders are chosen based on history and reason and the needs of the people they serve.
Tyrion has always been my favorite character, serving as our eyes and ears as he makes his way through the pain and the folly, and sometimes the love and majesty, of this fantastic world we have entered.
Out of his hard won wisdom, he nominates Bran to be their king because Bran is humanity’s memory. Instead of leading the Seven Kingdoms to some promised land of power and perfection, he will help them remember their triumphs and their losses, and in Tyrion’s words, “…the mistakes we made.”
The wise imp knows that only by facing, and learning from, our fears, our weaknesses and our humanity, can we make the world a better place. Our attachments to the false identities we present to the world to suppress our fears – these are the chains that must be broken.
At the end of the series, the Iron Throne and all that it represents is destroyed, and at least the possibility of a less harsh, more just world is born….
Westeros will be ruled by a king with no heirs, and no ambition….
Sansa, who has gone from a naïve girl, to a horribly victimized woman, is now a free and independent leader of her own kingdom….
Yara will be the first woman ever to rule the Iron Islands….
Brienne, though grieving the love she found and then lost, is now a knight….
Arya, whose mission has long been to kill all who wronged her and her family, is now off to see what lies beyond the world she’s always known.
And then there is Jon Snow, the leader who never wanted a throne, who has been banished to Castle Black. He, too, is a tragic figure for whom duty was indeed the end of love.
Had Jon found the courage to simply love Dany, and stand by her, and keep the secret she begged him to, regardless of family honor and the laws of the land, perhaps she might have found her own courage and become the leader we wanted her to be.
But because he remained in his identity too long, and realized the consequences of his actions too late, his only option was to find the courage to kill his queen. And now he is exiled back to the Wall.
Along with his direwolf Ghost (also an unwanted member of his litter who was born when his own mother died), and in the same location where Game of Thrones began 70 episodes earlier, we last see Jon joining the freefolk as they head into the North to find a new home, and a new future.
If Dany’s death and Jon’s loss make Game of Thrones a tragedy, then like the best tragedies it doesn’t just give us a lesson for avoiding our own downfall. It also leaves us with a sense of hope. If we can remember and learn from our mistakes, and somehow find the courage to embrace our humanity and live our truth, then the world can be a better place.
I understand the pain that so many feel because the saga did not end with the happier, or more romantic, or more uplifting resolution they might have hoped for or expected. But even in the face of all that disappointment and anger, my question is this….
Game of Thrones gave us an unequaled television experience that captivated and enlightened millions of viewers around the world. With an epic story, and a multitude of rich, complex characters, it stirred deep emotions, and generated conversations and analyses and arguments that brought together all of us who loved it. So instead of now berating its creators, shouldn’t we simply be saying, “Thank You?”
– Maester Hauge
P.S. By the way, now that you’ve read all my thoughts and opinions about Game of Thrones, your comments and criticism are truly welcome….
And thanks, Jim, for all your insights and understanding of our favorite show.
I recently posted a series of articles about how to use desire to define your story, to drive the action and characters toward a satisfying resolution, and to captivate your readers and audiences. In this new series I will reveal why CONFLICT – the obstacles your characters face in pursuing their desires – is your single most powerful storytelling tool, and I’ll show you the many ways you can use it to achieve your ultimate objective as a storyteller: eliciting emotion.
Last month (at the time I’m writing this), Tiger Woods won the Masters Golf Tournament for the 5th time in his career.
Witnessing this was an amazing, wonderful and long awaited experience. And it was the greatest comeback in sports – ever.
As you may have guessed, I’m a big fan of golf, and of Tiger Woods.
I’m one of the fortunate few who appreciate the unbridled excitement of watching people in polo shirts wandering around acres of trees and grass to hit a ball with a stick. But even if you’re not, you probably heard about this event. Photos of Tiger raising his arms in victory appeared on the front pages of every major newspaper in the U.S. (along with media outlets all over the world).
So the question I want to ask is…Why?
Why all the fascination and recognition and reactions to this one event, when athletic competitions are won and records are broken in a multitude of sports every year? Why this victory, when Tiger Woods, the greatest golfer of this era (and many would say ever) had won before – 80 times, in fact? Tiger is a legend, and his achievements had received lots of publicity in the past. But it was never anything like the response to this particular victory.
So why this time?
The answer is simple: conflict.
The obstacles Tiger had to overcome to win the Masters were so great, and the odds so stacked against him, that what he accomplished captured everyone’s attention and emotion and awe.
Two years ago, Tiger was so crippled by back problems that he declared he was done with golf. He was in so much pain that at times he couldn’t walk or even stand. He’d undergone numerous surgeries, culminating in a spinal fusion that would have ended the careers of most golfers.
The fact that Tiger battled back from this to be able to play again, and be a contender, was amazing enough. But it had been 7 years since Tiger had won any major tournament.
And this was the Masters, the most prestigious tournament in golf, with the most coveted prize. So Tiger was competing with the top ranked golfers in the world, almost all of them younger than he was.
Tiger is 43 years old. He’s no longer the golfer who can outdrive everyone, who wins half the tournaments he’s in. And until this tournament, he was no longer the opponent who could intimidate his competitors just because they knew he was better than they were.
The pressure of being at the top of the leader board at the Masters is monumental for any golfer. But imagine what it was for Tiger that weekend. He not only wanted so much to win one more major tournament and prove he was still Tiger, he was carrying the hopes of his millions of fans who wanted that as well.
All of these elements came together at the Masters. These obstacles – the pain and the surgeries and the endless practice and the younger, stronger competitors and the expectations – are what stood between Tiger and his goal. And each one of them added more conflict to his story.
This unprecedented level of real life conflict is what made Tiger’s story so emotional – so exciting and suspenseful and touching and fulfilling. On that final day, with that victory, Tiger made the world feel. And best of all, unlike most of the conflict we encounter in the news and in our lives, what we felt was positive and inspiring and gratifying.
As a storyteller, whether you want to entertain and inspire an audience, or persuade a jury, or grow your business and your brand, or captivate your readers, you must master the art of creating conflict for your characters.
And this is what I’ll be discussing in the articles that follow….
Let’s finish this series by going through all the types of desires we’ve discussed, making certain that they don’t get confusing.
I want to present them in the logical sequence you might reveal them in your stories, giving you suggestions for how to employ them and where they overlap.
I’m using writer/director Edgar Wright’s screenplay for BABY DRIVER, one of my very favorite films from last year, as my example in this final article in the series. BABY DRIVER wasn’t as widely seen as my previous examples in this series, but I’m hoping this article will encourage you to watch it. It’s fun, exciting, suspenseful, romantic, and has some of the best integration of music and action I’ve ever seen. My comments about how it illustrates the various forms of desire will be in boxes like this throughout.
THE ULTIMATE OUTCOME
What is your hero’s BIG WANT? What is the overarching goal that she wants someday, that will determine the individual goals that are steppingstones to that final state of success and happiness? What are the Ultimate Outcomes your hero is striving for (or plans to strive for) when we first meet her?
Eventually, your hero will begin pursuing a specific, visible Outer Motivation that will determine the climax of your story. But that visible desire is one the hero hopes will move her closer to that ultimate outcome.
I mention the Ultimate Outcome first because your hero usually carries this big desire into the story from the beginning. It’s probably existed since before your story begins.
Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver and part of a gang of thieves working for their boss Doc (Kevin Spacey). He’s paying off a debt to Doc, but he dreams of someday being able to live free of that obligation, no longer a criminal, and able to provide a better life for Joseph (C.J. Jones), a paraplegic who is something of a father figure to Baby. This is his ultimate outcome.
Often, storytellers I work with mistakenly identify this desire as their hero’s defining outer motivation. But it can’t be, because it’s too broad, too vague, or too far into the future.
Your audiences can understand a character wanting to reach a life goal. But it’s hard to formulate sharp, vivid images of wealth, power, happy families, legacies, or a better world for all mankind.
These larger goals can motivate your hero toward their actions in your story. But it’s possible your hero is simply paying lip service to them rather than taking any real action to achieve them. If so they also fall into the category of…
LONGINGS AND NEEDS
In the setup of your story, when you first introduce your hero, give us a sense of what’s missing from his life – what needs to change for him to lead a fulfilled life.
If your hero longs for something, give him dialogue that announces that, or have another character say something that alludes to it. Then show us how the hero is avoiding pursuing this desire, or how his plan for obtaining it is a conscious or subconscious, misguided attempt.
Perhaps he is wishing or hoping for it, or insisting he’ll dive in and get busy just as soon as something else in his life is fully resolved.
Or perhaps he claims – or actually believes – that his life is just fine, or at least as good as he’ll ever be able to make it. Instead of declaring a longing, he hides an unacknowledged need. “Things are fine,” or, “This is about as much as I can hope for,” are statements indicating that your hero’s need has been completely ignored or suppressed.
Baby tries to convince Joseph that things are fine, that he will soon step away from his criminal activities, and that there is no threat from Doc, Doc’s gang, or the law. But these empty promises are simply longings. He can’t really promise any of these things, because until he stands up to Doc and takes responsibility for his past actions, he’ll never have the life he says he wants.
Revealing your hero’s longing or need allows you to explore her inner journey – her transformation from living in fear to living courageously. These missing pieces in her life are the first sign that what she deeply wants or needs is overpowered by her desire for sameness.
Because of some wound in the past – some traumatic event, some painful situation, or some belief instilled by parents or groups or society in general – your hero has created a protective identity to avoid the pain she is certain will befall her if she risks letting her guard down. This emotional armor is her comfort zone – the boundary she can’t allow herself to cross.
Sadly, a life of real fulfillment, connection and individuation lies on the other side of that wall – out of reach as long as your hero is controlled by her fear. Her desire to keep things the same as they are – even if they’ve been intolerable – keeps her safe, but stuck.
No matter how much Baby claims he wants his life to change, a part of him is afraid to leave his identity as a thief and getaway driver behind. He sounds sincere enough, and he tells himself escape is his desire, what he won’t or can’t admit is that he feels secure staying on Doc’s good side, he gets off on the danger and excitement of racing away from the cops, and he’s afraid of the consequences of admitting his illegal actions. The headset he wears to drown out his tinnitus also allows him (at least subconsciously) to escape from the real world reality of what he’s doing.
A character like this will never be truly happy – at least not until she starts pursuing her outer motivation. When she does that, she’ll begin a journey that will force her to let go of her protective identity and find her courage.
THE PRELIMINARY GOAL
Once you’ve introduced your hero and established his longing or need, introduce some opportunity or crisis into his life. He will have to respond, giving him a Preliminary Goal – a desire to figure out, “What should I do about this?” and then act on that desire.
Your hero must decide what this event means, what problem it creates, what solutions are open to him, what will the consequences of any new action might be, and who might help him out of this new situation.
Two events occur after the setup of our hero: Baby meets Debora (Lily James), a waitress in a diner, and Doc announces his plans for the gang to rob an armored car. This creates two preliminary goals for Baby – to plan for the robbery – and figure out what to do when it goes sideways – and to get to know Debra better. This is his period of entering and exploring these new “worlds” his entered, and deciding how to react to these new situations.
The pursuit of this preliminary goal may take your hero down some wrong paths, and will likely lead him to an ally who will help him define the right goal, formulate his plan, and eventually guide him to victory. (In creating a case study/success story for business, this guide should be you, your service or your product.)
This preliminary goal will result in your hero defining and declaring his…
This is the clearly defined outcome your hero wants to achieve, the desire that your readers and viewers are rooting for your hero to accomplish. And your hero wants to achieve this goal because he believes it will satisfy his…
While we’ve already seen Baby involved in two different robberies, his outer motivations are established when he is forced by Doc to do one last big job – provide getaway for another bank robbery – and when he starts to date Debora. His specific, visible goals are now to get away with the bank robbery, and to win the love of (be in a permanent, committed relationship with) Debora.
[It is not uncommon for a love story to contain two outer motivations for the hero: the visible goal (usually work related) that defines the hook of the story, and the visible goal of winning the love of the romance character. When this happens, these two goals must always be in conflict with each other. For Baby, this dilemma occurs when Doc and other members of the gang threaten to kill Debora if Baby doesn’t cooperate.]
This is the invisible desire for self worth that your hero thinks will be his if he can achieve that visible goal he’s striving for.
If he believes winning this battle or stopping this threat or marrying the woman of his dreams will lead to a sense of acceptance or belonging or love or retribution or success or power, then one of those constitutes his inner motivation.
Baby’s inner motivation for completing the bank robbery (his path to self worth) is that he believes it will bring him the freedom and escape from his life of crime he dreams of. His inner motivation for pursuing Debora is simply love – also a path to self worth.
When your hero takes his first step toward achieving his outer motivation, his preliminary goal is in the past, and now he is on the singular path to achieving what he wants. Now you must force your hero to face and overcome the obstacles in his way – both external conflicts that come from enemies and forces of nature, and the inner conflict that grows out of his dueling desires for achievement and sameness.
And when he wins – when all of these desires have been resolved — his journey, and that of your readers and viewers and listeners, is over.
[Click below to read the previous articles in this series.]
In this series of articles exploring the various goals your hero will pursue, all the desires have had one thing in common: they all serve to move your hero closer to her ultimate objective. Your hero imagines her life changing for the better when she finally gets what she wants.
But the desire I want to discuss now has the opposite effect: it prevents your hero from moving forward or achieving what they want and need.
This is the hero’s desire for things to stay the same.
No matter how bad our circumstances might be, one thing we know for sure: we can survive them. We’ve managed to get by for this long, so wherever we are, we feel emotionally safe. We may be unfulfilled, we may even feel some kind of pain, but we’re able to tolerate it. We’re in our comfort zones.
But our desire for sameness – for feeling safe and protected – can also keep us stuck. We end up tolerating situations that aren’t bringing us the happiness or fulfillment we need and deserve.
Change would mean taking a terrifying risk. We’d have to leave what’s familiar and step into the unknown. We’d have to go against everything we believe about who we are and who we are supposed to be.
Change would mean stripping away the emotional armor we’ve created and exposing our hidden fears and desires and vulnerability. And that can be more than we’ll even consider.
That’s why, given a choice between happy and safe, we’ll almost always pick safe.
It’s the same with the hero of your story. She might be getting along just fine, content and satisfied with the way things are. Or she might be in an awful situation – a boring or painful job, or relationship, or environment. But she’s doing nothing to improve her situation, or escape from it, because the thought of change is too terrifying.
For your hero, this desire to maintain the familiar status quo is at the heart of her inner conflict. And this tug-of-war between who she’s always been and who she might become – between her fear and her courage – can elicit a powerful emotional response from your readers and audiences.
In La La Land, both heroes begin the movie trapped in their desire for sameness. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) longs for his own jazz club, but is uncompromising about the location, fanatical about the purity of jazz, and selling out on a nightly basis by playing music he disdains.
And though Mia (Emma Stone) seems more active and determined, her efforts are really just an ever-repeating cycle of failure and rejection. She keeps grinding away at hopeless auditions while waiting tables tables at a studio diner that is seemingly inches from the stardom and success she dreams of.
Neither of them would admit, even to themselves (especially to themselves), that a part of them is content not taking the real risks achieving their dreams would entail. But we can see how stuck they really are.
It’s only when they meet each other, and Sebastian gets fired, and Mia starts writing her one woman show, that they step out of their protective identities and really go after what they want.
And of course, that’s when they fall in love.
We all struggle with our own fears and longings. So when you reveal your hero’s own inner conflict, we will identify with that character at the deepest possible level.
And when you tell a story about a hero who is able to overcome this fear, and when you reveal how they were able to find that courage, that’s when you will truly inspire your audiences, and move them to action.
In the final article of this series, I’ll show you how to present all these desires in your story.
[Click below to read the previous articles in this series.]
Defining your hero’s Outer Motivation can sometimes seem confusing because it can easily be mistaken for two of your hero’s other desires: his Preliminary Goal and his Ultimate Objective.
The key to understanding these distinctions is to ask two defining questions:
1) “When in my story will these desires be resolved?”
2) “Do any of these desires establish a specific, visible finish line?”
The Preliminary Goal always occurs early in the story, before your hero begins taking action toward his outer motivation. After you’ve introduced your hero in the Setup of your story, you will present him with a specific opportunity or crisis – an unexpected event that will force him to respond.
Depending on the kind of story you’re telling, this might be the loss of a job or a loved one, learning about some competition with a big prize, the discovery of a dead body or an alien space ship, or meeting the person of his dreams.
Immediately your hero wants to do something about this event. And this preliminary goal will always involve your hero asking himself, “Now what will I do? What is this new situation I’ve entered? What are the rules? What is expected of me? What do I want? And who will help me?”
In A Star Is Born, Jack’s opportunity appears when he first hears Ally (Lady Gaga) sing. But he doesn’t immediately walk up to her and say, “I want to make you a star and win your love.” His preliminary goal is to figure out, “Who is this woman? What is she like? Why is she singing in this club? What are her dreams? And should I pursue her – either professionally or romantically?”
For the hero of your story, figuring out how to react to the opportunity and solve his problem has no clear endpoint. We can’t envision what it will look like because we don’t know what the answers to his questions will be. But in discovering the answers, your hero will determine his specific goal – his Outer Motivation. And as soon as he begins taking action to achieve that desire, the preliminary goal is resolved.
The Ultimate Objective is trickier. It’s the final destination your hero wants to reach. But it is usually broad and generalized: he wants to be wealthy; he wants to rise to the top of his profession; he wants to make the world safe; he wants to find true love.
In Game Night, Max (Jason Bateman) wants to outshine his much more successful brother. But that eventual goal doesn’t have the clear finish line that his outer motivation (to rescue his brother from the people who want to kill him) does.
And in the original Star Wars*, Luke’s ultimate objective is to become a Jedi knight and help defeat the Empire. But his outer motivation is to learn the force and ultimately destroy the death star.
In a business or marketing story, a preliminary goal might be for your hero to find someone to help him keep his company from going bankrupt.
His ultimate objective could be to someday make enough money to buy a vacation home.
Those two desires would lead to his outer motivation/visible goal for your story: to increase his total revenue to $50,000 in three months.
Whether you’re writing a movie, novel, speech or blog, your hero’s long-term desire might be identical to the longing he revealed in the setup of your story.
But once your hero starts pursuing his outer motivation, that desire is no longer just a hope or a dream, because now he’s taking action to achieve it. And his Outer Motivation will be a step toward achieving that long term, Ultimate Objective.
In the next installment of this series I’ll examine one additional goal: the Desire for Sameness.
[Click below to read the previous articles in this series.]
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.
#3: Longings & Needs
The Outer Motivation answers the question, “What is my hero’s visible goal?”
To discover your hero’s Inner Motivation ask, “Why does my hero want this?”
But when we first meet your hero in the opening setup of your story, before she begins pursing her outer or inner motivations, she may be expressing another desire: her Longing.
How many times do we say we’d give anything just to be rich or successful, or to follow our calling to be a writer or speaker or artist, or to find true love and happiness? But we don’t do everything we’d have to in order to achieve that dream, because we lack the one thing we need most: courage.
Your hero may have longed for some desire for a long time. Or rather she’s said that’s what she wants. The problem is, she’s just not doing anything to achieve it – or at least not anything that will ever lead her to what she longs for. Because risking what it would take to pursue this desire fully is just too scary.
So she’s relegated what she longs for to the realm of wishes, hopes and dreams.
Longings are the desires we’ll declare (at least to ourselves) whenever we throw coins in a fountain, tug on a wishbone or blow out candles. Whenever we say things like, “Here’s hoping!” or, “I just hope someday I can meet the right person,” we’re expressing a longing.
But if you think about the word hope, you realize there’s a sense of helplessness to it. All the power lies with some unseen force that might bless us or grant us our wishes if we’re just deserving enough or lucky enough. We make half-hearted efforts to achieve these desires, because we regard them as fantasies. Deep down we regard these desires as kind of silly – simply “more than we can hope for.”
Dreams are different than mere hopes (or we tell ourselves they are). We don’t just leave our dreams to chance and good fortune. We are definitely going after these desires…
We just have to wait until we have enough time or money or experience to dive in and really do it. As soon as the credit cards are paid off or the kids are grown or we’ve experienced enough books and seminars and webinars that we can be certain we won’t fail, then watch out – here we come!
It might be the same with your hero. He’ll settle for somedays that never come. But he’ll keep dreaming about what he longs for just the same.
Longing is my term for any of these wishes, hopes and dreams that characters only pay lip service to, because they’re too afraid to go after them. Their fears of failure or success, or of leaving their comfort zones, or of abandoning their protective identities, keep them stuck in a place of inertia, feeling safe but unfulfilled.
But what about the multitude of stories where the heroes don’t seem to want anything when we first meet them? They’re satisfied with their lives, thank you very much, and are just fine with the way things are.
They long for nothing.
If you look closely at these heroes, you can usually see that they’re stuck in some way, tolerating situations that keep them from realizing their potential. Something is missing from their lives, and even though they’re skating by, they’re holding themselves back from a fulfilled existence.
I describe these characters as having a need. They long for nothing, because they are too afraid to even admit they’re mired in their comfort zones.
If your hero has a need, she may be completely oblivious to how limiting her existence is – her ability to suppress her fear of change is that powerful.
Consider the two heroes of the latest incarnation of A Star Is Born.
In the screenplay by Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters, Ally (Lady Gaga) longs to be a successful singer and songwriter. She’s dreamed of this since she was a little girl. But she exhibits her astonishing talent only when she performs in a small, hidden away drag queen bar. And she won’t sing her own songs anywhere. So her deep desire to be a star is relegated to the category of longing.
Jack (Bradley Cooper), on the other hand, longs for nothing. He acts as if his deepest desires for artistry are all behind him. But when we see the pained, addicted man this brilliant singer and songwriter has become, we recognize his desperate need for love, connection and forgiveness.
Revealing and exploring your heroes’ longings and suppressed needs will strengthen your stories’ impact on your readers and audiences. Because we can all relate to characters that want their lives to be better, but who delay going after what they really want because they’re afraid.
And when you take these heroes on journeys where they find the courage to fulfill their needs and longings, your followers will get a taste of their own hidden courage as well.
In the next chapter of this series I’ll discuss two desires your hero wants that he won’t avoid: his Preliminary Goal and his Ultimate Objective.
[Click below to read the previous articles in this series.]
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
When your goal is to deliver a written or spoken story that elicits emotion (as it ALWAYS must be), your story has to include 3 essential elements: character, desire and conflict. You must introduce us to an empathetic character who desperately wants some compelling goal, and who must overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve it.
But to touch your readers and audiences deeply, a fourth element is just as crucial: transformation.
Something must change in the course of your story. Life must be different in some way as a result of your hero taking this journey and achieving (or failing to achieve) his or her goal.
This transformation will occur on four different levels. The first three are:
Your hero’s external circumstances will change. She (or he) might be wealthier, more powerful, more successful, more admired; she’s is in a new relationship; she is no longer threatened by the villain or demon or disease she overcame; or (if she was unsuccessful) she might be alone, or disgraced, or deceased.
Your hero has changed internally. The arc of her inner journey might have made her more courageous, more loving, more moral, or (whether she succeeded or failed) wiser.
The world around your hero has changed. Her courage and sacrifice has made those around her safer, happier, wiser, more loving or more courageous themselves.
In last year’s Oscar® winning film The Shape of Water, the hero Elisa desperately wants to rescue – and ultimately be with – the amphibious creature with whom she is falling in love, in spite of the government agent who tortures and torments him, the military General who wants to experiment on him or kill him, the impossibility of getting him away from the facility where he’s imprisoned, and the fact that he is slowly dying.
(If you haven’t seen the film, stop reading now and watch it – it’s terrific.)
By the end of The Shape of Water:
Her circumstances have changed: she is united with the creature.
She has changed: she is no longer meek and withdrawn, but courageous and connected.
The world has changed: the creature is safe and resurrected; the evil threat to the two lovers is vanquished; and her friend Giles has found a level of courage – and perhaps a faith in love and magic – that he lacked at the beginning of the story.
The fourth transformation may be harder to recognize and achieve, but will be just as powerful: you, the storyteller, will change.
If you have the courage to tell stories that grow out of your own fears and failures and successes – out of your own flawed humanity – then you will experience a greater sense of your own inner strength and courage and connection. And these are the stories that will touch your followers most deeply.