Stories are driven by yearning.
In order to get somewhere, there has to be a current position and a destination. Stories fundamentally describe a change of state – things are different at the end of the story than at the beginning. Hence a story has a starting point and a final end point, a resolution.
But that’s not enough. There has to be fuel, energy to power the motion between the one position and the other. In stories, this driving force is the motivation of the characters.
Motivation is so important to storytelling that we are going to look at several aspects of it. We’ll break it down into what we call the wish, the want, and the goal, all of which are interlinked but also distinct from each other. Here in this post, we’ll deal with the wish.
A wish is inherent in the character from the beginning. We might call it a character want, as distinct from a plot want (which we deal with elsewhere).
- Marty McFly wishes to be a musician. This is brought across in the very first scene of the movie Back to the Future, where we see him plug his electric guitar into an amplifier.
- Luke Skywalker wishes to get away from his dusty planet Tatooine to join the academy and become a pilot.
So the wish is structurally important, because it is “planted” early in the story, and becomes relevant later in the story. The wish is emotionally relevant in that it helps the audience to latch onto the character and is conducive to empathy with that character. We understand characters better when we are shown their yearnings.
People live in social groups. This can create conflicting wishes inherent to all of us. Everyone has to a greater or lesser degree the wish to get along with others in the group, indeed for connection. On the other hand, nobody likes to be dominated by others in the group, which means that to some extent at least everyone develops strategies to counteract the dominance of others – by wishing for dominance or status for themselves.
This sort of social power play is so ingrained within us that we may not even be aware of how much it determines our values and our actions. Stories reflect this state of affairs – often cooperative behaviour (getting along) is shown to benefit the individual and the group, whereas egocentric overly-dominant behaviour tends to be censured.
Dramaturgically speaking, it is not absolutely and strictly necessary that the main character has a wish. Many stories manage very well without. A want, however, is needed to provide motivation.
The Wish in Narrative Structure – planting and symmetry
So the wish is structurally relevant. If a character has a wish, this must be made clear to the audience as early as possible, shortly after the narrative introduces the character. The wish becomes an essential part of the audience’ understanding of that character. Furthermore, if a character has a wish, the story must show what happens with it. Is the wish fulfilled by the end of the story or not?
- At the end of Back to the Future, Marty plays guitar at a concert. His wish is fulfilled.
- At the end of Star Wars IV- A New Hope, Luke Skywalker is a heroic pilot. He achieves his wish.
In the western Once Upon A Time In The West, crippled railroad tycoon Morton wishes for the sea, and aims to see the building of the railroad through to reach the west coast. The audience learns this by being shown a painting of the ocean in his luxurious car. His wish is not fulfilled. When he is shot, he dies stretching his fingers into a puddle and hearing, in his imagination, the sound of surf.
These examples make plain one of the most powerful techniques in storytelling, the set-up/pay-off, also known as “planting”. A piece of knowledge is imparted to the audience, the relevance of which at that point is not comprehensible – this is the set up. Later that knowledge becomes the basis of an aha-effect, the pay-off. Such aha-effects are pretty much what audiences consume stories for. They provide satisfaction, and stories that don’t have them are simply less satisfying.
Furthermore, we see from the above movie examples one of the great fundamentals of storytelling in general: stories have a tendency to symmetry. A set-up in the first half of the story such as a character’s wish is mirrored in the second half when we learn whether the wish is fulfilled or not.
Narrative structure determines how audiences react
All of this indicates that narrative structure is a vital and determining factor in how audiences react to a story. That being the case, it seems odd when authors claim to make up the plot as they go or find the characters as they write. Would any author really leave narrative structure to chance?
The outline of a story is its architectural design. Of course, one can bring a manuscript into shape and determine the form of the story by rewriting. One could, on the other hand, spend more time and consideration on the planning process and create an outline that includes salient points such as characters’ wishes.
Next, we’ll look at the want.
Related function in the Beemgee story development tool: