Key Story Element: Protagonist's DESIRE
2022 continues to be… challenging. I know, because many of you share your stories with me. And I know, because like very many of you, I’m engaged in “the long goodbye” with someone I love. Grief—and practical matters of care—take up so much of our hearts and brains that writing can seem impossible.
But having a book or script to focus on is meditative. It’s another world that we can go to, even just 15 minutes a day, that can be an escape, a refuge. As one of you put it, “I realized in the midst of all this I needed something I was doing just for myself.”
Yes. That is simple sanity.
And if a book seems too much to cope with, you can still do something every day to be a better writer.
You can do it when you’re depressed, you can do it with your bedridden parent, you can do it when you’ve got the kids all day, you can do it while you’re working out—and (this is so important) You can do it even when you have no desire to do anything at all. And it is the absolute bottom line basis of what I teach in my writing workbooks, and workshops, and blogs:
If you commit some hours this year to learning how to analyze film story structure, then you truly can practice story by osmosis every single time the TV is on, which for many of us is every day, too many hours a day. If you’re with the kids, put on a Pixar movie. If you’re with a sick parent, how about a classic romance or a western or a musical?
If you can only watch 15 minutes at a time, fantastic! That’s one whole sequence (there are eight sequences, or segments, in a two hour movie, each about 15 minutes.) Watching just one sequence at a time will make you intimately familiar with what story elements your reader or audience expects at that point in a book or script. It is an amazing and life-changing thing to realize that the same elements tend to occur at the same points in every story, no matter what genre. And there’s no better way to learn it than by watching movies.
But you need to start by watching consciously. Once you have dedicated some time to doing it consciously, you will be able to do it unconsciously and you are growing as a writer every time there is a screen remotely in your vicinity.
Even if it’s too much for you right now to focus on your book, if you practice watching movies, 15 minutes at a time, you will be taking your writing to a whole new level, so that when you finally do have time and energy for that book, the process will be far easier and the book or script will be far better—and consequently more salable.
Don’t you want that?
I meant it when I said watch a Pixar movie or a musical. There’s no better way to see Key Story Elements in action, because in a good musical, every Key Story Element is depicted in a song.
This week we watched Funny Girl together. In just fifteen minutes of watching that classic, you can get a stellar (pun intended) lesson on how important and effective it is to explicitly express your main character’s DESIRE.
The movie is a great example of making the Desire of the heroine concrete and visual (the “I Want” song is a staple of musical theater, and movie musicals so often do this brilliantly, both in song and in visuals). Early in the story, Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice is fired from the chorus line of a vaudeville show because she’s a terrible dancer and, well, not exactly cover girl material. She tries to convince the producer to rehire her in a song (“I’m the Greatest Star”), but gets thrown out of the theater anyway. Out in the alley, she stops still… then storms back past the theater guard to try again, still singing — only to find the theater empty. Then, alone out on stage, she has that moment – that I’m sure every actor and singer and dancer in the history of the world has had — that moment of being alone on an empty stage with the entire vast history and awesome power of the theater around you. She is speechless, silenced… and then finishes the song with a power and passion we haven’t seen in her yet. We see, unequivocally, that she is a star.
Her desire is being voiced in the song, but the visuals give it the emotional power — and truth. This is her drive; this is what she would kill for.
Think you can’t put that on the page? Come on, I know I could. And it’s hugely instructive to look at musicals for the way they depict unadulterated longing. That’s the kind of emotion we want to get on the page, right? Try using that as inspiration.
In Funny Girl, Fanny’s desire is so powerful that she actually forces her own INCITING EVENT. In most stories, this event that begins the story and forces the protagonist to take action is something that happens to the protagonist that they then react to. But in Funny Girl, in her song, Fanny demands to be heard, to be given a chance. And at the end of the song, we hear clapping from the back of the theater that had seemed to be empty. The revue director has seen and heard the whole thing, and offers Fanny a chorus job that will become her big break.
It’s an amazing, exhilarating SETPIECE. And you can get all of that by watching just 15 minutes of the film.
It’s also interesting to look at the scene where Fanny first meets Nick Arnstein and is instantly smitten. It’s clearly love … but to me, not quite the moment that her first solo on stage is. And although the second half of the movie doesn’t live up to the first half, the whole story is about how Fanny’s two desires — for stardom and for love — are in conflict. I think the film is a great example of visualizing both the Inner and Outer Desires.
Now I have to go—today we’re watching Encanto. I’ll report back!
So what can you watch today to make you a better writer?
Need some help? The Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workshop is now available online, as a self-paced course with all the videos, assignments, movie breakdowns and personalized feedback you need to get that book written this year. In four parts, and you only pay for what you use.
Small group coaching also available in The Writers’ Room.
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