I’ve been thinking a lot about the craft of storytelling lately. No matter how long you’ve been doing it or how many stories you’ve written, there’s something about theory that’s endlessly fascinating. Lately, as I try to generate new material, it’s been on my mind. I’m certainly no expert in the academics of it, but as someone who’s done his fair share of professional dramatic writing and talked to a lot of people who do the same, I think the whole shebang boils down to one thing:
Stories happen when somebody wants something but can’t have it.
Dramatic stories, at least. But there are very few stories that aren’t dramatic at heart — at least, not interesting ones. Even the Bible works that way, whether you believe in the theology or not. Why did God create the universe? There’s a reason for it, right? God didn’t just do it because it was told to do it, because who would tell God to do something before anything else existed? So God wanted something, and it didn’t have it, so it created the universe to get it. God went through all this stuff so it could get to its ultimate goal: humankind. Someone to talk to and command and mess with. God wanted to be entertained, God wanted company, so God created the Earth and everything on it. Boom. Story.
Of course, from there you need something to give the story some zing, some purpose. It’s usually strongest when the person can’t have what they want because somebody else has something they want but can’t have. You need conflict. You need an antagonist, a foil.
God creates Adam, but now Adam becomes a pain in the ass because he wants company. So God creates Eve. Now God has friends, but it doesn’t want to lose its new friends, so it tells them not to eat the apple. They want the apple, but they can’t have it. Enter a full-on opponent, the snake, that convinces her to do so. The snake wants to watch the world burn, basically. Adam and Eve get kicked out, so on knew so forth and begat somesuch, etc., leading to every other story because we all know that, when you start running out of story threads, you start introducing new characters that — everybody with me now — want something they can’t have.
There’s a reason the Bible stuck around: it’s chock full of solid storytelling. When you strip away all the setting and plot and theme and everything else, it boils down to people doing dumb shit because they want something they don’t have. It’s easy to lose sight of that. As long as you have that North Star of your character’s desire, you can always follow your character to wherever he needs to go. It can be something as insignificant as a child wanting a candy bar or as epic as Thanos wanting to murder half the universe. It’s often helpful to have a destination in mind, but sometimes (especially in serialized/franchise storytelling), it’s stronger not to. One of the most bone-dumb film genres illustrates that perfectly: the slasher movie.
Nobody’s ever going to claim those movies are narrative masterpieces. What makes the best ones work, however, are when you have really driven protagonists who can never achieve their goal. That protagonist is, of course, the killer. Jason Voorhees seeks vengeance for his torment and “death” at the hands of his counselors, but he can never get that satisfaction because they’re already dead. Same with Freddy Krueger — he wants revenge on the parents that burned him alive, but he can’t get to their dreams so he has to adapt by tormenting their children. Michael Myers wants to fill a hole inside himself that all the killing in the world won’t fill, but that doesn’t mean he won’t try. That’s why those characters are so indelible and lend themselves to sequel after sequel — they can pursue their goal endlessly and never cross that finish line.
That’s okay, though, because in a story, the finish line means character growth and that’s just something that’s never gonna happen for those characters. It’s why, in serialized TV, you gotta keep yanking the carrot away. Once they get the carrot, the show’s over. Unfortunately, the show being over doesn’t always correspond with the network deciding the show is over, which is usually when things start going downhill.
It’s also possible the audience won’t like what happens when the character finally gets the carrot they’ve fought so hard for. That fight changes them. In traditional three act storytelling, they no longer want the carrot because they’ve found what they need instead of what they want. That’s a discussion for another day, though (and a more complicated one).
In the meantime, if you’re struggling with a story problem, ask yourself: what does my character want, how do I stop them from getting it, and how do they get around that obstacle? Find your character’s North Star.