Aug 25, 2012

How to Write Better Stories

What really drives your story?
I'm going to share with you a secret that will knock your socks off. This tip will make your plot richer and deeper and... more meaningful. Okay, when I say secret, it may be that I'm the only one that didn't know about it before. But I'm still excited, it's made a world of difference for my writing. Alison Goodman, author of the well known series Eon, revealed this writing technique in her course on narrative structure. Goodman passes on this golden advice from Robert McKee, who outlined the method in his book on writing screenplays, Story

The importance of character motivation in fiction is obvious. Characters must want something real bad, this is their goal. Your character might even have more than one goal. They should have an existing goal before we meet them, you know - they want to travel the world but they've been stuck in a small town since they were born, they want to meet their prince charming but only meet pigs in the strip club they work in, or they want to be a rock star but their parents expect them to become a priest. This goal drives a lot of the protagonist's decisions. In Warracknabeal Kids, Harry Conner's existing goal is find his mother, or at least uncover what happened to her. But then something happens...

We have the sneaky old inciting incident. The moment that things change for the protagonist and their everyday life is shaken up in some way. The inciting incident may provide a new goal for your character. My inciting incident involved a fire and the discovery of a body. Now Harry has a whole new mystery to solve. 

I always thought the protagonist's goal drove the narrative. But that's a limited view. There's something missing here. If you want to have a character with realistic depth then they need more than motive. They must posses an underlying need.

This need is something your protagonist won't be aware of. And here's the kicker, it's this need that will drive your story, everything in your novel should in some way address the character's need. 

I was floored by this news. I always thought Harry NEEDED to find out what happened to his mother. She disappeared and left him alone with a father who can't connect with Harry. But when I explored the fact that Harry can't know what he really needs, I realised... Harry NEEDS to connect with his father. These two people need to find a way to be together, because Harry's mum is gone, but his dad is here.

Suddenly my narrative developed a new thread and theme. A stranger comes to town, and he was important to the story before, but now he is important to Harry as well. The charismatic stranger encompasses all the traits Harry wishes for in a father. 

Your character's underlying need should contradict or conflict with their goal or desire. The character who wants to travel the world, might really need to recognise the value in belonging in a small town and the satisfaction of living up to your responsibilities. They might NEED to stay.

When your story reaches its climax, your character should be facing a serious dilemma. It is at this time they need to make a difficult choice. Go for the goal or the need? This dilemma is resolved when your character manages to acknowledge their need and unify the goal and need. That is, either they will find a way to have both, or they will release their grip on one and be satisfied with the other.

Knowing about my character's need to connect with his father has added a theme of fatherhood to my mystery novel. Other characters in the novel either compliment or contradict this theme. The theme touches everyone in this town in some way. 

I've fallen even more in love with my novel and my very flawed characters. So here's what I want you to do right now, start brainstorming your character's need. You might not hit it straight away, keep going, you'll feel it like a punch in the stomach when you get the right one.


  1. Hi Charmaine,
    Thanks for the insight. I think it's interesting, and informative, that the character's needs must run deeper than the obvious. Obvious in a writers sense, that is, I just assumed that giving the protagonist a problem and a goal which carried the plot was all. But you seem to suggest that the protagonist "come equipped" with a problem or goal, which is in addition to the story plot. Am I looking at it correctly?

  2. Interesting point about a character's need, and goes to show that the best writers are often amateur psychologists. Or at least really good observers of human nature. :))

  3. Hi, Charmaine,

    You have me thinking about a story I want to write and what that character needs.

    Good post. Our characters needs and how they get them should drive our stories.

  4. Thank you, Charmaine. This is so well explained. I have known about that "need" thing for years, but now I have a different perspective on it. What the MC wants is not necessarily the same thing as what the MC needs.

  5. Wow, I've never really considered this point before. I NEED to find my character's NEED. Thanks for this.

  6. Excellent post! ans you're so write. It's almost pointless to write a story without your MC having a need.
    Once, I wrote a short story. The MC had no need my editor was like 'SO'.


  7. Excellent post that I had to Tweet just as soon as I finished reading it. Great tip for the newbies and a great reminder for those who've been at this writing thing for a while.
    Some Dark Romantic

  8. I love that! Going to have to think about how this impacts my current story - thanks!

  9. Hmm? Definitely something to think about...
    How are you, Charmaine? Sorry I haven't been by in a while.
    This is why blogging and discussing books and writing is so very important. We've all read enough of them, that we very often think we know all that there is to write them ourselves. However, sometimes something comes along like this that does indeed knock our socks off.
    Thanks for the tip.


  10. So true! When you think about it, the best motivations and needs are the ones the characters never saw coming.

  11. Need! I did that right in my first book without even realizing it.

  12. Oh man, I never really thought of this before!
    Blessigs, Joanne

  13. Hi Charming! This certainly did blow my sox off. I liked the way you presented your new 'find' by giving us examples from your own story. Now I need to find the time to further brainstorm for my latest brainchild of a novel. I can see how this adds another theme, or even more, to the story.
    Thanks bud.
    See you Wednesday I hope. D

  14. Dear Charmaine,
    Thank you so much for your fun comment about my hopeless character, Paul. You really made my day. I laughed out loud and understood that I have several possibilities for my novel's plot. Jenny could conceivably find someone else other than Paul! I love your description of him not being able to change the toilet paper!
    So I went to your blog to say thank you, and discovered this wonderful post about how to put more life into your plot - think about what drives your characters, their needs and goals.

    Bingo! You have just given me several ideas for my story!! And you have also given me the vitamin-kick I need to keep going.

    Thank you, thank you!
    Best wishes & hugs,
    RFW No.43 - 'Romantic Picnic'

  15. I am sooooo grateful to you for devulging this secret Charmaine. Positively brilliant. Your revelations have set all sorts of pretty wheels in motion. Ta muchly Dimity x

  16. Great reminders. Great post.
    I think the theme is something many fledgling authors forget about and i didn't know about the elements to a story untill I googled it. The course I took forgeot to mention them!!

  17. Great post! Thanks for sharing! I suppose we usually look at their goals and forget their needs. I will definitely take your advice! Take care!

  18. well said about goals and needs. And you are so right--that eureka moment is like getting punched in the stomach, but in a good way. hehehe.

  19. Character goal versus character need is spanking new info for me. Thanks for sharing this. Yes, it definitely is an aha! moment ...

  20. Thank you for this insight. My mind is usually on goals. I don't ignore needs, but I know I need to ponder on that more and wait for them to arise while I'm planning and drafting.

  21. Great post! Can you hear that grinding noise? Don't be alarmed, it's the wheels in my brain turning. Thank you SO much for visiting and commenting on my blog (A Nest of Words) - what a happy surprise when I got back from the dog park with my two pups. I've joined you, followed you, and liked you - think that covers it...