The driving force of any story is a strong desire line. What’s that?
A strong specific desire your character has, and the path forward that takes them closer and closer to it.
How do you build a strong desire line?
First, you give your main character a clear desire – a goal that they are trying to achieve.
This desire could be a tangible thing:
- A big-ole-bag of money
- A cure for a disease
- A dream house
Or it could be an intangible desire:
The best desires are both.
Your character wants respect, and the way to get that is to win the big race.
So the clear desire is to win the race. But simultaneously, it’s about what winning that race means – the respect of his family and friends.
Desire lines give the audience something to invest in.
When the audience knows the character’s desire, they can root for them to achieve it. They can picture what it will look like if the hero succeeds or fails. And if that desire is something that hooks your audience, then they’ll be rabidly curious to see what happens in the end. Will they succeed? Will they fail? Your desire line paints the stakes of your story in technicolor.
But what makes a good desire line?
What kinds of desires do audiences care about?
Primal desires are by far the most effective. Because they are inherently understood by every human being on the planet. They elicit powerful emotional responses:
- Etc, etc, etc…
This is where you start. In building a desire line, nail down something primal.
The audience should never be asking themselves “why does she want that?” If it’s primal, it’s obvious. They’re deeply emotional drives and needs. No one is ever confused by why someone would want love or respect or survival. These are universal. Desired by everyone.
So start with something primal. Then give it a tangible expression.
Say: a desire for revenge.
The tangible expression: killing his wife’s murderer.
So how do we integrate this desire into the story? How do we roll it out? How do we execute the desire line?
You have one main desire that persists throughout the entire story.
And then you take this main desire and break it down into smaller, sub-desires.
An effective tool for creating these smaller sub-desires is to think in terms of “if, then” statements.
Let’s say your overall main desire is to break out of prison.
IF your main character wants to break out of prison, THEN he has to convince his cell mate to join in on the break-out plan.
Once this first sub-desire is achieved and the cell mate is on board, you move on to the next sub-desire.
IF they want to break out of prison, THEN they have to dig a tunnel… and so on.
These smaller desires act as steps towards achieving the ultimate desire.
You can think of the desire line structure as following the four act structure we’ve already discussed.
One desire per act:
- Act 1 – Establish the main desire.
- Act 2 – A necessary sub-desire on the path to the main desire.
- Act 3 – Another sub-desire.
- Act 4 – Full steam ahead on the main desire.
The audience will see the main desire achieved or lost by the end of the story.
You can incorporate smaller desires along the way if need be, but having it broken into acts this way is a good basic framework.
- Lock down a primal intangible desire.
- Give it a tangible form that an audience can get emotionally invested in.
- Create at least 4 sub-desires on the way to achieving it.
You’re all done.