Welcome to the Bite Size Edition of the Editor Roundtable Podcast. Here on the Roundtable we’re dedicated to helping you become a better writer, following the Story Grid method developed by Shawn Coyne.
In these episodes we bring you some shorter solo articles and interviews on topics that interest us as writers.
Hi. This is Anne Hawley, and today I’m bringing you a short examination of Objects of Desire.
I delivered this talk at Story Grid Live in Nashville in September 2019. Story Grid Live is shaping up to be an annual event, a gathering of writers and editors interested in the Story Grid method. If you were there, hello again! Our recording efforts failed and this is my attempt to make my talk available.
If you weren’t there, we hope to see you next year. It’s a great event.
Either way, join me for a short bite of writing insight starting right now.
Shawn Coyne has formulated six questions that we must be able to answer about our own story in order to determine that the story works.
We refer to them as the Editor’s Six Core Questions, and they go like this:
- What is the genre?
- What are the conventions and obligatory scenes for the genre?
- What is the point of view narrative device?
- What are the objects of desire?
- What is the controlling idea or theme?
- What are the story’s beginning hook, middle build, and ending payoff?
Today I’m examining question number 4: What are the objects of desire?
Defining our terms
First let’s define terms. What do we mean by Objects of Desire? Simply your character’s wants and needs. The question applies primarily to your protagonist, but also to your antagonist, and to a lesser extent to secondary characters.
WANT: This is your character’s conscious external desire—what the Call to Adventure or inciting incident offers them. It’s what they think they’re going on the journey to get. The character’s want is dictated by the external genre of your story.
Your protagonist wants to defeat the villain, solve the crime, win love, gain honor, win the big game, etc.
NEED: This is what they really need in order to complete the journey they set out on, regardless of what they think they want.
The Need is unconscious to start with and is usually dictated by the character’s internal genre.
Therefore the character’s needs will tend to cluster around either:
- gaining wisdom or knowledge—that’s a Worldview internal arc
- redefining success, which is a Status internal arc -or-
- making sacrifices, which is a Morality internal arc
The need impinges on the character’s consciousness gradually till the global crisis.
At the global crisis, towards the end of your middle build, the character can no longer ignore the need, and has to face the fact that they can’t get what they want till they accept the change that they really needed all along.
THEN—and only then—can they:
- defeat the villain
- solve the crime
- win love
- gain honor
- win the big game…
…and so forth, depending on the external genre.
Story Grid Algebra
There’s a kind of Story Grid algebra here: if you know the answer to one of the editor’s six core questions, you should be able to solve for most of the others.
Genre is at the top of the list, and everything flows down from that, but if you’re not sure of your genre, one way to detect it is to interrogate your protagonist about what they want, why they set out on the journey. What disrupted their life and lit up a new desire?
- The Action protagonist wants to save the victim and defeat the villain.
- The Crime protagonist wants to solve the crime.
- The Love protagonist wants to win the love of the other character.
- The Performance protagonist wants to win the game, be the best, get the blue ribbon, etc.
If your character wants to bring a criminal to justice, then you are writing a crime story. If your character wants to win romantic love, you’re not writing a crime story—at least not primarily.
Looking at it from the other side: if you are writing a crime story, then your character had better be motivated by wanting to solve the crime. If you’re writing a love story, your character had better be motivated by the desire to find a romantic relationship.
Real life versus story
In real life, people want lots of things at the same time. It’s tempting to make our characters “well rounded” by giving them a variety of desires.
In real life, one challenge overlaps another, and new stories begin before the old one ends. We don’t resolve a lot of our own story lines.
But stories aren’t real life and characters aren’t real people.
I say that a lot because it continues to be a revelation to me.
It’s our job as writers to streamline these “people” and their complicated desires and multiple storylines down to one story, with one want and one need. When the protagonist finally gets what they want after accepting what they needed all along, that’s the end of the story.
Does this mean that in every single scene your character must be taking action to secure what they want? Kind of. When they face choices—which they should be doing in every scene—the small choices they make should reflect what they want.
As a really simple example, the love story protagonist might face a choice of what to wear for the first date. He wants to look nice—that’s the immediate in-scene want—because maybe looking nice will help attract the affection or love that is the overarching desire.
Little choices reflect the larger desire. If you have a scene where your character struggles with a choice that isn’t directly traceable to the global want or need, it’s probably a scene you should cut.
A personal story
Now I’d like to tell you a personal story:
Ordinary life opening: I’ve lived in other countries. I’ve traveled quite a bit and I think of myself as a worldly, cosmopolitan, sophisticated person.
For the past several years, I’ve been gradually slowed down by arthritis. I’ve constricted my life more and more to accommodate it. Shrinking my orbit, limiting my activity, to avoid pain so I can continue to believe that not much has changed.
Inciting incident: I had an opportunity to travel to Europe. A week-long writing retreat at a farmhouse in the French countryside? Sure, I can do that! I’ve been to France lots of times. I speak French. So I book my tickets, with a stop in London on either end to visit friends.
First complication – an obstacle: The long walk from the front of PDX, my home airport in Portland, out the concourse to the gate, was now more than I could manage without pain. So I boarded my flight in pain, and spent an uncomfortable nine hours flying, then damaged my joints further by walking through Heathrow, a vastly bigger airport than PDX.
Second complication – an obstacle: The friend I was visiting didn’t really understand what “I can’t walk very far” meant, because of course “a couple of blocks” has no meaning in London. I was too proud to back down. So I walked more than I should have, and caused lots more pain. I had a couple of miserable hotel nights. But I carried on, flew to France, and rested for a week in the country.
Third complication – an opportunity: The writing retreat was warm, sunny, relaxed. I never had to walk more than a few yards. I felt pretty good. Kind of how I’ve been managing my life for the past several years.
Turning point progressive complication: Back in the UK to get my flight home, I had to get across London by myself. As I dragged myself and my suitcase up a flight of stairs at Charing Cross, another woman offered to help. I shook my head. No no, I’m fine, thank you. But she just picked up the back end of my suitcase and helped me get up to the street level
By the time I got to my hotel room, I was immobilized. I wasted two days in London just lying there, downing Tylenol. No day trip to Winchester Cathedral, no ride on the London Eye, nothing. Might as well have been at home.
Crisis: But I still had to get home. I had a 12-hour, three-airport flight ahead of me. I thought maybe I should ask for assistance at the airport. Part of me said, “Nah, that would be admitting I’m disabled. And I’m not. I’m a cosmopolitan world traveler, dammit! Tough it out.”
I could choose to cripple myself further by dragging my screaming body through three more airports because I have my pride. Or I could ask for help.
Climax: Reader, I asked for help.
Resolution: I got home in one piece. And now I’m one of those people you see at airport who get rides in a wheelchair or on the beep-beep cart out to their gate.
Objects of Desire in my story
What did I want up until the turning point? Independence, freedom, clinging to a self image that’s not realistic for me. External validation of that self-image.
What did I finally realize that I needed? Help. Assistance. Support. Humility.
So what genre can we derive from this story?
It’s about esteem and image. It’s about pride and shame. And that should direct your thoughts to those genres in the middle of the chart, the ones that are transitional between external and internal—where the protagonist is concerned not with life and death survival, not with safety, not particularly with love or belonging, but with reputation, third party validation, external and internal esteem. So, probably a Status story.
I was there, and I can assure you, it was a Status story—whether pathetic, tragic, or sentimental, I leave it to you to decide.
Your characters want what they want until the global turning point complication—towards the end of the middle build—where something blocks the road to getting it, and they have to acknowledge a need they’d rather ignore, in order to win through to the end of the journey and go home with the prize.
OR, they let that final complication stop them, they fail in their quest, and they become a cautionary tale to the reader.
It’s critically important to understand your protagonist’s objects of desire, and your antagonist’s objects of desire. As a matter of best practice, you should also have a general idea of what your main secondary characters want and need as well.
Analysis of the objects of desire is probably more of an editing tool than a drafting tool for most writers. You may never need to think about it unless you have a scene that doesn’t work or doesn’t belong. Then, ask yourself if your character is aiming for a desire that has nothing to do with the wants and needs that are driving the rest of the story. If so, the scene isn’t part of the story and probably needs to go.
When readers say they didn’t relate to a character, or found it hard to believe that this character would do that at that point in the story, what they’re telling you is that the Objects of Desire were not consistent.
Making sure that your characters are always driving towards what they want, until they have to face what they really need, is the key to compelling characterization and a solid story.
If you have trouble figuring out the objects of desire that apply to your story, or any other of the Editor’s Six Core Questions, you can schedule a free half-hour consultation with me by going to annehawley.net/editing. I’d love to hear from you.
Join us next time as we bring you a Bonus Edition of the podcast, in which Jarie interviews the rest of the team about their experience and insights from Story Grid Live in Nashville 2019!