#246 – Crafting Story with Wants, Needs, and Desires


[0:00:01.0] TG: Hello, and welcome to The Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you level up your craft as a writer. My name is Tim Grahl and I’m a writer and the behind-the-scenes guy here at Story Grid. This podcast episode is hosted by Story Grid certified editor, Kimberly Kessler, alongside Shawn Coyne, the founder of Story Grid and an editor with over 30 years of experience.

In this episode, Kim and Shawn discuss crafting your stories with wants, needs, and desires. Before we jump in, I want to mention two things you might be interested in. First of all, I recommend you pick up a copy of The Four Core Framework by Shawn Coyne. In this book, Shawn introduces you to the four essential elements of a story: Core needs, core life values, core emotions, and core events. 

Whether you’re writing an action-adventure, a mystery, or a love story, these are the elements that spark the emotional connection and catharsis readers are looking for. You can get 20% off The Four Core Framework and all of our books at storygrid.com/books with the coupon code “podcast.”

Lastly, if you are fascinated by the Story Grid and are interested in joining the elite team of Story Grid certified editors, our next training is coming up in less than two months, it’s in February. One of the many benefits of this program is world-class training on starting and growing an editing business. You can see all of the details at storygrid.com/certification

Okay, that’s all on the announcements so let me turn it over to Kim and Shawn.


[0:01:34.6] KK: Okay Shawn, we’re back and we’re talking about wants and needs and desires, this trinity of these objects of desire that are protagonists and other characters in our story that they are pursuing so I wanted to bring this up and I wanted to pick your brain about this because it’s something that I have been really thinking about lately and I’ve been really noticing how the character wants and needs are really, to me, it’s like they’re acting like an engine for the story and they really seem to be the motivation in the character to make anything move anywhere, to make anything believable.

I’ve been finding that if I can nail what my character’s wants and needs are and in this case, we’re saying, wants, needs, and desires, then, I can kind of like the plot, the spine, the obligatory moments, the commandments, they kind of – it’s weird, they kind of write themselves, it’s this really interesting thing I’ve been noticing.

Can you kind of just expand a little bit more on how do we translate these wants, needs, and desires, how do we see that they’re actually driving the story forward and moving us through the events in a story across the spine?

[0:02:50.4] SC: One of the things about the story grid is that we have so many levels of analysis. The beautiful part is that you can sort of take the elevator to any floor and you can get off that floor and that floor will tell you about all the other floors.

[0:03:06.4] KK: Yeah, that’s great.

[0:03:08.3] SC: Wants, needs, and desires are very – they’re a great floor to land on because we can all implicitly understand what they’re all about. When we want something, we all automatically project a series of operations that we would do in order to get that thing. 

When you’re younger and you want to go to college, you do your best to project the necessities, what you’ll have to do to get to the college that you want to get to and then you plan as best you can and you actualize the potential of that plan as best you can and hopefully you get into a place that’s within your realm of your goal state, of where you want to go to college. 

Now, obviously, we don’t think like, “Oh when I finish college, I’m all done.” Then you set the next goal. This is sort of the way we step-by-step move through the world, we set ourselves these goals, and then we kind of simulate in our minds the tactics and strategies that we have to actualize in order to sort of achieve those goals.

When you speak with a specific want, “I want justice” or “I want to find out who the killer is” or “I want to fall in love, damn it” then, you can sort of move through, “Well, how would one go about doing such a thing?” and the trick here is that once you start plotting that out, then you start to realize, “Oh, there’s another dimension” right? 

The actual acquisition of the want is one thing and then there’s this other thing that’s happening within the person themselves is that they are starting to transform, they are changing as they are creating change in the world itself.

[0:04:56.5] KK: Right.

[0:04:58.1] SC: The internal need, now, here’s the trick about storytelling, right? I say this a lot, is that a good rule of thumb is that if the protagonist gets what they want, you should probably not have them get what they need, and if they get what they need, they’re probably not going to get what they want.

For example, that wonderful movie Whiplash where it’s the story of somebody who is aspiring to become a great musician, a great drummer. His desire is to get the accolades of being the best. That’s what he does, he works his butt off, that’s all he does. He wants the authority figure to give him the confirmation that he’s good, that he’s getting better, that he’s great and of course, it’s a very nasty authority figure who is very tyrannical and he isn’t going to give that.

He’s going to keep moving the bar, he’s going to make it harder and harder and harder. The character never really gets what he wants but he does get what he needs. He doesn’t get the accolades that he desires of being this great drummer, in fact, he gets kicked out of school I think or…

[0:06:12.8] KK: Yeah.

[0:06:13.5] SC: At the end of the film, we see that he’s transformed himself from wanting to be a great drummer to actually being.

[0:06:22.8] KK: Being, yeah.

[0:06:23.2] SC: A great drummer. It’s not about the accolades anymore, it’s about the actualization of the beat and that’s a beautiful story because we see, “Oh, I get it now. The pursuit of the artifice and the title and the accolades and the authority figure saying I’m wonderful, that is not going to make me happy. What’s going to make me happy is the actualization of being part of something greater than the sum of its parts.”

Here he is as a drummer in a band and they’re making amazing music and that’s enough. Wants and needs have this really nice sort of yin yang-y thing going for it. The desire is the binding material that makes sense of the pursuit of the wants and the needs. The desire is, we need better drummers, we need better music in the world, that’s the universal abstract desire, we need more complexity in the Universe.

The desire is satisfied at the end of that film and it’s a desire that the audience experiences as witnessing that the further complexification of the universe and that’s a cathartic experience.

[0:07:46.6] KK: That’s really interesting and I like that clarity like when you’re mentioning this idea of desire, right? We need better music, we need better stories, we need better leaders, whatever, right? This complexification and it’s right, as you were saying, it’s as if the universe itself has a desire and it wants better, right? Better things that are –

[0:08:06.8] SC: More integrated things, more beautiful things.

[0:08:09.1] KK: Yeah. Okay, that feels really good. That feels like the universal truth, the universal desire and then we get really specific with the individual protagonist about what does that actually mean, right? What is that? We go from abstract, right, down into this concrete and well specifically, we’re in this specific setting with this specific character who is in this specific college, with this specific teacher, it gets really specific about what they want and then that’s the having mode versus like, “Okay, but what’s the real complexification that becomes their being?” 

[0:08:44.9] SC: Yeah, that’s the beauty of a performance story because we all can relate to want. Every one of us wants something all the time, we deep down know when our wants are really not cool, right? But, want is want and we are very efficient machinery to get what we want, and oftentimes, when we do get what we want, we realize how empty and meaningless it really is.

[0:09:11.6] KK: Right.

[0:09:13.3] SC: That’s why we come to stories is to be reminded of a fact that wants are really a pale in comparison to the attainment of a need and the need is a connection, it’s a continuity of our experience with the rest of our fellow beings and the universe itself. 

It’s the continuity of our conformity to the experience of being itself. We all want to be our own individual, incredible, tough people, right? We all want our props. Yeah, that’s what we want but what we need is to integrate within a community such that we feel part of something larger than ourselves.

We want to feel that we’re home, we have a home in the world where we can share and be a part of a community. We want to connect, we want to be part of the community. We have two really opponent processing kind of things, we’ve got the want of individual “I am an I” or “I am a rock, I’m an island, I’m self-sufficient, I don’t take shit from anybody” and we also want to come home where we’re welcome.

Where we feel like we’ve got a role, we like our role, we can help and enable the others in our family to get better, and the larger we can build that community, the more we feel at home and the more secure we are. So it’s these two opponent processes of the desire for individuality and achievement for its own sake so that we can go down as the greatest of all time of whatever and the other desire is to completely push all of our being into the allocentric community. 

This is a beautiful thing because guess what happens is that while we’re pursuing our development as these ass-kicking MFs who can do all the incredible individual things, we’ve reached this little stage where we go, “Oh, wait a minute, this isn’t really bringing me all that much love and joy. Oh, I get it. Now, since I know how to sort of complexify myself, now I get to enable other people to do the same thing, and maybe together, we can join forces and between the two of us we could create something even greater.” This is love, right? 

[0:11:49.9] KK: Yeah. That feels really good, so the want is the conscious thing that the protagonist is after. Now, is the need, would that be something that they are conscious of at the beginning? What if you had someone pursuing community as their want? How does that – I don’t know, I’m just thinking about how to make these connections. Do you know what I’m saying? 

[0:12:14.4] SC: Yeah, I do. Okay, I’m just riffing here but this is a theory that I’ve been playing with for a long time. 

[0:12:21.0] KK: Oh okay. 

[0:12:21.7] SC: All right, so the wants is a conscious desire. It is sort of like a propositional goal state that our super-duper brain has set for us, right? We’ve perceived the world as it is and we say to ourselves, “That’s what I want. I want to be a movie star because movie stars live in mansions, they drive great cars, they’re always beautiful, everybody adores them” et cetera, et cetera. 

That is a propositional want and then what we do is say, “In order for me to get to that propositional goal state, what do I need to do? What series of operations do I have to do to get there?” So, it’s a conscious very top-down kind of goal state that we set for ourselves and then we plot our journey to Hollywood. All right, so that’s on the surface. Just to make the analogy that you’re saying, somebody who is like, “I want to build a community.” 

Consciously, top-down, “I am going to build the greatest social network of all time so that people will come and connect” right? 

[0:13:35.4] KK: Right. 

[0:13:35.8] SC: That’s a top-down kind of deal and so they’re saying, “If I can do that, then people will admire me for bringing together the world” so it is a conscious top-down thing. Okay. So that’s on the surface and both things are possible, so somebody can externalize the internal need in a misframing. 

[0:13:58.2] KK: Okay.

[0:13:59.2] SC: Right? They are basically taking a need and making it a want and people do this all the time. 

[0:14:05.8] KK: Right. 

[0:14:06.4] SC: Right? It is kind of a really cool idea for a story. That’s the conscious want. It’s a propositional falling in love with the perfect goal state. “Once I cross that finish line, I can breathe, everything will be perfect, there will be no more pain or suffering for me, there will be no more uncertainty.” This is the big bullshitter within us, right? 

[0:14:32.2] KK: Right. It’s sounding a little familiar right now. 

[0:14:38.3] SC: All right, so let me transition into the other one, the need, here is my theory about the need. I think need is very, very primal and I think need has a linealogical component to it. What do I mean by that? I think deep within our familial histories, our moms, our dads, our grandfathers, our grandmothers, there are these sort of things that were not properly processed.

[0:15:10.6] KK: Right, yes. 

[0:15:11.9] SC: What happens is that these things sort of pass on from generation to generation unconsciously and nobody sets out to harm anyone but these behaviors continue. They become unconscious linealogical almost phenotypical genetic components.

[0:15:32.6] KK: Okay, wait. Phenotypical, what’s that one? 

[0:15:35.0] SC: It just means the expression of genotypical passing on of genes, right? 

[0:15:39.8] KK: Okay. 

[0:15:40.4] SC: The phenotype is an expression of the genotype.

[0:15:42.8] KK: Okay. 

[0:15:43.8] SC: If you want to play with that, genotype is the potentiality of a behavior and the phenotype is the actuality of that behavior. We’ve got these unconscious things that are operating and when we’re born, we’re brought into the soup of our family and there are these unconscious behaviors that sort of the sins of the father pass on to the son in a way and that the son doesn’t even know that he’s carrying these sins. 

[0:16:11.7] KK: Right. 

[0:16:12.6] SC: The daughters too, I am not trying to be sexist in any way. 

[0:16:15.7] KK: Shit rolls downhill to all people. 

[0:16:17.9] SC: That’s right, yeah, it’s inescapable. 

[0:16:20.1] KK: Inescapable. 

[0:16:21.5] SC: Okay, so this is an unconscious need within the line is to break it apart and to stop it from happening and so what happens is that the need surfaces in the unconscious and it is a bottom-up functioning. What happens from the bottom is that we, as we are pursuing our want, we are inevitably also directed toward what we need and so we have the opportunity in the pursuit of every want to have a revelatory moment such that we discover that what we want isn’t what we need.

[0:17:02.4] KK: Right, yep, okay.

[0:17:04.3] SC: But what we do need is available and what we need to do is to break the chain of choices, bad behaviors, et cetera that are being passed on to the next generation. It’s sort of like there are these generations of people who I call them sort of like the bridge breakers. You know, they sort of like blow up the bridge of certain maladaptive behaviors from that lineology and it doesn’t mean that they don’t love the people that are in their family but they say, “Enough.”

[0:17:38.5] KK: Enough is enough. 

[0:17:39.8] SC: “That’s enough of that.” And so that’s what happens in the revelatory moment in stories is when the protagonist realizes from their unconscious that they are behaving habitually in a way that is maladaptive and it must stop and they need to reintegrate their framing of the world such that they place the importance of complexifying themselves above that of having a new call and these are the deep, deep messages in our best stories that these are the ones that continue and we all go, “Yeah, that’s true. Yeah, that’s true.” 

Very few people remember the millionaire next door but they do remember the person who showed up when your dog died and they brought over a lasagna and they helped you dig the hole and they cried over the backyard, you never forget that person. You don’t remember the person who had the brand new BMW seven years ago, right? That’s what I’m talking about is that there are these unconscious needs that are they’re like knocking on the doors of our consciousness and constantly trying. 

They’re trying to get our attention. They can be nasty, right? This is very Jungian stuff but these — Jung believed in the collective unconscious in that what we’re all swimming in this collective soup where there’s all kinds of that unconscious knocking at us and trying to get us to disintegrate the stuff that is no longer adaptable and not cool. We’ve made so many wonderful changes in the world in the past 50 or 60 years but we’re still doing a lot of unconscious things that need to be put away. 

We don’t have to burn down Rome but we do need to put away childish things as somebody once said. 

[0:19:34.0] KK: Somebody once said. Somebody. Oh that’s so good and it makes me emotional, I can really feel this and I guess it’s just the goodness, right? It’s the goodness of storytelling and just why it’s so valuable and it’s interesting I think. I think this is what I’ve been really obsessed with is, in my stories and in my clients’ stories, really trying to understand what that thing is, right? 

What’s the revelation that they need to have, what’s the truth that they’re missing about themselves or about the world that they need that’s going to bring it all together, you know? It’s just really cool to hear you go back to the source, go back to the beginning and build it all up and it’s like, “Okay, yeah, that’s what we’re here to do.”


[00:26:42] KK: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid podcast. If your heart is set on telling an internal genre story but is struggling with how to get it on the page, I invite you to connect with me for a free consult at kimberkessler.com. That’s K-I-M-B-E-R-K-E-S-S-L-E-R.com. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com and make sure to pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. Also, make sure you go to storygrid.com/books to see all the titles that we’ve released through Story Grid Publishing. 

If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast. If you’d like to reach out to us directly, you can find us on Twitter @storygrid. And lastly, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on Apple Podcasts and leaving a rating and review. Thanks so much for subscribing and being a part of our work here at Story Grid. We’ll see you next week.



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Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.


Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.