Friday, May 02, 2014


I got some good questions this week on the idea of the protagonist's INNER AND OUTER DESIRES (for the discussion, see the Comments section here. To follow up, I wanted to repost on the whole concept.

So let's talk about this crucial idea of INNER AND OUTER DESIRE.

The first thing any acting student learns in terms of creating a character and building a scene is to ask the question: “What do I WANT?” - in every scene, and in the story overall. When I was directing plays (yeah, in one of my multiple past lives) and a scene was just lying dead on the stage, I could always get the actors to breathe life into it by getting them to clarify what they wanted in the scene and simply playing that want.
This is something that starts in the writing, obviously, and should always be on the author’s mind, too: Who wants what in the scene, and how do those desires conflict? Who WINS in the scene?

But even before all that, one of the most important steps of creating a story, from the very beginning, is identifying the protagonist overall desire and need in the story. You also hear this called “internal” and “external” desire, and “want” and “deep need”, but it’s all the same thing. A strong main character will want something immediately, like to get that promotion, or to have sex with the love interest. But there’s something underneath that surface want that is really driving the character, and in good characters, those inner and outer desires are in conflict. Also, the character will KNOW that s/he wants that outer desire, but probably will have very little idea that what she really needs is the inner desire.

One of the great examples of all time of inner and outer desire in conflict is in the George Bailey character in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. From the very beginning George wants to see the world, to do big things, design big buildings – all very male, external, explosive goals. But his deep need is to become a good man and community leader like his father, who does big things and fights big battles – but on a microcosm, in their tiny, “boring” little community of Bedford Falls, which George can’t wait to escape.

But every choice he actually makes in the story defers his external need to escape, and ties him closer to the community that he becomes the moral leader of, as he takes on his late father’s role and battles the town’s would-be dictator, Mr. Potter. George does not take on that role happily – he fights it every single step of the way, and resents it a good bit of the time. But it’s that conflict which makes George such a great character whom we emphasize with – it’s a story of how an ordinary man becomes a true hero.

In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Clarice’s outer desire is for advancement in the FBI. And Harris conveys this desire in what is a brilliant storytelling trick: He has Dr. Lecter tell her so. “You’re sooooo ambitious, aren’t you?” He purrs. And “I’ll give you what you most desire, Clarice. Advancement.”

It’s brilliant because it makes Lecter all-knowing, but it also clearly spells out Clarice’s desire, which the audience/reader really does need to know to commit to the character and relax into the story. I’m a big believer in just spelling it out.

But what Clarice REALLY needs is not advancement. What she needs to save a lamb – the lamb that haunts her dreams, the lamb she hears screaming. In the story, the kidnapped senator’s daughter Catherine is the lamb, and Harris uses animal imagery to subtly evoke a lamb and the scene of the slaughter of the lambs that haunts Clarice.

And again, Lecter is the one who draws this deep need out of Clarice.

Also Clarice’s need and desire come into conflict: what she WANTS is advancement, but in order to save Catherine, she has to defy her superiors and jeopardize her graduation from the academy.

It’s usually true that the external desire will be a selfish want – something the protagonist wants for him or herself, and the inner need will be unselfish - something the protagonst comes to want for other people. This is a useful guideline because it clearly shows character growth.

Closely entwined with the inner/outer desire lines is the ARC of the character (since you are devising the end of your story at the same time as you’re planning the beginning.) The arc of the character is what the character learns during the course of the story, and how s/he changes because of it. It could be said that the arc of a character is almost always about the character realizing that s/he’s been obsessed with an outer goal or desire, when what she really needs to be whole, fulfilled, and lovable is (fill in the blank). On top of that a character will go from shy and repressed to a capable and respected leader, from selfish to altruistic, from pathological liar to a seeker of truth… and the bigger the change, the more impact the story will have, as long as you keep it believable.

So it’s essential to know where you want your character to end up. Once you know that, you can work backward to create a number of personal obstacles and external problems that are keeping that character from being everything s/he can be.

Now let's explore this key story element visually.

I've said here before that it's important to state your hero/ine’s outer desire aloud - either the character saying it or someone close to them (or better yet, in opposition to them) stating it for them.

Well, what I really meant is, you need to make inner and outer desire crystal clear. And that is often better accomplished visually than in words. You don’t actually have to have the hero say he wants the heroine, if you describe how his world stops at the moment that he meets her (as we see done so well in Notting Hill, as I talked about last post.).

Funny Girl is a great example of making the desire of the heroine concrete and visual (musicals so often do this brilliantly, 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 doesn’t, well, fit in. 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 makes a decision and storms back in to try again, still singing - only to find the theater empty. Then, out alone 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 power of the theater around you – and 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: “I’m the Greatest Star” – 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 I think it’s 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.

It’s also interesting to look at the scene where Fanny first meets Nick Arnstein, and is instantly smitten. It’s clearly love… but not quite the moment that her first solo on stage is. And the whole story is about those two desires: for stardom and for love – are in conflict. I think it’s a great example of visualizing both the inner and outer desires.

Take Raging Bull. Jake LaMotta’s OUTER DESIRE is clear – he states it flat out, and he and all his entourage are working toward it. He wants to be a champion boxer.

But the moment he meets Vickie, we see a new DESIRE begin, and it’s quickly apparent that that new desire is going to conflict with his stated desire. He wants this woman, and Scorsese films Jake’s view of her so beautifully: she sits at the edge of a swimming pool, blonde and pale, with the sun and the water caressing her… the film goes into slightly slow motion as she moves her legs in the water. It’s a terrific depiction of the thunderbolt of love, and the beginning of obsession; time stops for the hero when he sees the loved one.

(That slow motion technique is used to wryly comic effect to introduce the teenage love interest, Astrid, in the wonderful animated fantasy, How To Train Your Dragon. Not only does the world go into slo-mo when protagonist Hiccup first introduces her in narration in the film, but also the backdrop is an explosion of fire and the expression on Hiccup’s face is downright starry.)

I want to note that the establishing of OUTER DESIRE is such a big moment that it’s often used as the SEQUENCE ONE CLIMAX, as it is in Raging Bull and Funny Girl (the song gets her hired by the musical director at the theater). The hero/ine’s desire is important to establish early on, so using it as the Act One Climax would in most cases be too late.

It’s helpful to muse on how you might use any or all of the six senses to externalize INNER AND OUTER DESIRE. In It’s A Wonderful Life the sound of a train whistle is like a knife in George Bailey’s heart, reminding him of the places he’s never been able to go. As we all know, scent can be the most powerfully evocative of all senses… why not use it to externalize your own hero/ine’s desire?

And in the action thriller Collateral Jamie Foxx’s outer desire (two of them, actually) is established in a whole scene: when Jada Pinkett Smith gets into his cab for a short ride, their wonderful, sparkling, chemistry-laced dialogue not only reveals to us his dream of running a limo company (OUTER DESIRE), but also shows him developing a powerful new Inner and Outer Desire: He wants her (OUTER DESIRE ), but more than that: he wants to be a man worthy of her (INNER DESIRE). Which is so often the case in a love story or love subplot. And the way he can become a man worthy of her is to stop dreaming about the limo company and DO IT.

This terrific film shows how effective it can be to take an entire scene to detail the hero/ine’s desire line.

And remember that in a love story the moment of seeing the loved one for the first time does not just begin the inner – or sometimes outer! – desire, but it’s often also the INCITING INCIDENT and/or CALL TO ADVENTURE of the story.

Hmm, a lot of love story examples this time, for a change! May be the influence of some wedding that took place recently…

So you know the question. What are some examples of how filmmakers or authors externalize the main character's INNER AND OUTER DESIRE?

- Alex


Want more?  Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, are available in multiple formats, $3.99 and $2.99.

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If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.

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Unknown said...

Hi Alex,

as always, you make your point passionately and convincingly. You describe the power that comes from conflicting inner and outer desire very well.

However, the danger I see is that creating the character arc solely from a conflict between a selfish inner desire with a selfless outer one could easily lead to a story (an Aesop) that feels trite and cliche.

Yes, we all love A Christmas Carol In Prose, but only because the author - and anyone who was involved with the movie - is long since dead.

IMHO it helps a lot if the outer desire, if somewhat more selfish, is not blatantly so, but also motivated by good, or at least plausible, intentions.

Clarice Starling's outer desire for advancement in the FBI is a good example: She is well supported by her superiors and instructors, because she is clearly an extremely qualified and capable student. And advancement by always being the best in competetive exams and evaluations is what got her out of misery, poverty and isolation, ever since her first day at school. (I'm going by the book here.)

So, what do you think: How much danger is there of becoming too pedagogical with selfish vs. selfless desires?


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hi Timothy - well, of course these aren't rules, only tendencies, and I don't think you've said anything that conflicts with anything I've said. Anything too blatant has a danger of coming off as cliche - then again, one of my favorite character arcs happens with Phil in Goundhog Day, and you couldn't have a more blatantly selfish guy in the beginning, or a more satisfying character arc when he FINALLY gets that there's more to life than that.

I think the tendency toward selfish vs. selfless desires is a tendency for exactly that reason. It's a very satisfying arc. But if you don't want to go down that route, of course the thing to do would be to make a list of character arcs that BREAK that pattern and are still satisfying.

Unknown said...

Hi Alex,

good points.

Nothing is a cliche the first time it's done, or the one time it's done really well, or if it's overshadowed by all the good stuff. Also, there is a lot of taste involved: What is a cliche to you may not be one to me, and vice versa.

I do indeed love character arcs that break that pattern. Even though, or maybe because, I'm generally a happy person, I have a certain fascination with tragedy arcs: George Smiley, who typically wins the battle and captures the enemy, but can never enjoy the victory because he has to wonder if the war was worth it. Cypher, who just wants a better live than eating dogfood aboard Nebuchadnezzer, and ultimately has to send off his friends to a gruesome death with his own hands. Walter White, whose belated realization that he is indeed a bad person - I did it for myself, I liked it, I was good at it - is probably the most irritating kind of redemption ever.

IMHO, cliche in romance is very much in the eye of the beholder: My favorite romantic subplots - ahem, could you please stop fiddling with these needles, thank you - are those in The Big Bang Theory, especially the one between Sheldon and Amy (I think our relationship is incredibly intimate.). And I don't even care if there's any cliche involved.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Well, a tragic arc or "Hero/ine falls" story is a totally different animal! You mention Cypher, but he's a secondary character and an opponent. Opponents are much more likely to have tragic arcs. So many of them don't learn, and that's their tragedy.