By Shawn Coyne | Published: October 11, 2013
I’ve been working on a doorstop of a book called The Story Grid. It’s about long form storytelling from the editor’s point of view. It’s my answer to “what do you do…literally…step-by-step…from the moment you’re handed a manuscript to the moment you hand it back to the writer to revise.” As I’m nearing the finish line, I thought I’d share some of it. Let me know if you’d like to see more.
Why is understanding the concept of “need” such an important part of Storytelling?
It is because the most meaningful stories operate on two levels, the external and the internal, the conscious and the unconscious. The external story is on the surface. External events are driven by outside forces. Personal outside forces (like a femme fatale) and extra-personal outside forces (like the LAPD). Your lead protagonist’s external story moves backward or forward according to his moment to moment success pursuing his conscious object of desire, his “want.” Perhaps he wants to find evidence that a woman’s husband is cheating on her simply to fill his bank account. But when he discovers that he’s been set up to take on a case revolving around a young girl in jeopardy, his want changes. That change moves the external story forward…he’s now ‘wanting’ something else and we the reader follow along with him as he chases it. He doesn’t know it, but his want has turned into a need.
Remember that we look to story to instruct us how to navigate the world.
But we don’t just live in one world, we live in two. The external world (how we live among our fellow man pursuing what we want) and the internal world (how we find peace within ourselves by getting what we need) are the hemispheres of human experience.
Needs begin as those things a human being requires to negotiate the primal challenges of the external world. But then need morphs and moves inward, to embody our longing for inner peace. Needs are genetically pre-wired and then socially learned and then mysterious. These lists compel us first to take action in order just to survive. But then once we reach a level of physical security, we move on up the need ladder to unconsciously pursue a higher realm.
Jake Gittes in the movie Chinatown may consciously want to “find the girl” so that he can bring an end to a nightmare case, but he is also driven by his unconscious need to find the truth and secure justice. If you are writing a story, you must understand both the external want of your lead character and his internal need. If you don’t. Your reader won’t either.
In his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” psychologist Abraham Maslow hypothesized that human beings have an innate step-by-step “hierarchy of needs.” Like a to-do list, once a person checks off a primary need, it’s on to the next. As you would expect, the hierarchy begins at the purely physical level (external) and ramps up to the metaphyscial (internal). Maslow’s hierarchy is a pyramid that looks like this:
At the very bottom are the basic physiological requirements—air, food, water, sleep, sex, sleep, etc., just the existential bare bones. Once these needs have been met, the human then safeguards himself. He gathers the materials and social tools necessary to maintain personal equilibrium. He finds shelter, learns how to defend it and then reaches detente with other human beings. After the first two tiers, the necessities for physical survival have been met and the person begins to journey inward. He requires intimacy, communication with and sharing experiences with others. And ultimately he needs to find a mate or family communion.
While this communal need is an internal one, the external world has a great deal of influence on the individual’s actions to get it. That is, the seeker of intimacy learns how to best satisfy that need by watching and learning from the behavior of others. To find intimacy with another human being requires a person to conform to his surrounding social environment. The ways in which high school students in Los Angeles make friends and search for companions are far different from the ways in which Pashtun teenagers in Afghanistan do. It is the storyteller’s responsibility to understand the social milieu of his story. He has to make the appropriate choices for his characters that will fit or not fit within that chosen setting. Classic “fish out of water” stories like ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK play off of this need on many levels.
Your character’s actions to find love and intimacy lead to fulfilling (or not fulfilling) the next level of need, which is self-esteem, respect by others, confidence etc. This need represents an individual’s coming to an understanding of their place in their society, where they fit and why they are important. People who are loved and respected could be as diparate as a neurosurgeon or a civil servant who works at the department of motor vehicles. Both know where they stand in society. Whether that brings them contentment is another question.
Once a person knows where he sits in the group he identifies with and feels secure in his belonging, he turns his attention to the top of Maslow’s pyramid—what Maslow calls Self-Actualization. This is the terrain that Steve Pressfield talks about so wonderfully in his books THE WAR OF ART, TURNING PRO, DO THE WORK, THE WARRIOR ETHOS and THE AUTHENTIC SWING. This is that place where you find yourself asking a lot of WHY questions. Why am I here? Why do I feel something lacking? Why am I soft in the middle when the rest of my life is so hard?
We don’t know that we’re searching for something called “self-actualization,” we just find ourselves perplexed by the fact that we have every “need” checked off our list, but still we find ourselves lacking. No matter what we chase as a “want” to solve that emptiness, we’re left unsatisfied. What Steve calls Resistance is a force that pushes us away from the big questions. “Yes, something is telling me to quit my job and start an organic farm, but I don’t know anything about gardening and I’ve got bills I gotta pay…” This kind of Resistance. If you focus on the bills, the idea of self-actualization can be beaten into submission. It makes sense because to not focus on the bills puts your security in jeopardy. Who wants to tumble down the pyramid only to find that they don’t have a green thumb?
Self-actualization is a place where humanity strives to leave our petty existences and commune with the greater forces. Whether you believe in God or quantum physics or no thing other than the reality of the inner chatter inside your head, we all suspect that there must be something fundamental in the universe that we just don’t have the capacity to understand. Self-actualization is the way in which we contend with that great mystery.
So stories of depth and meaning are those that progress to this ultimate mystery, this ultimate need. The lead character may consciously desire a want, but it is his unconscious need for self-actualization that pushes him to the limits of human experience.
Have you ever been on a vacation, with nothing to do, and find yourself having trouble “filling the time?” You’ve worked hard to go on vacation, but once you’re there, you find it generally unsatisfying. You worry about having to go back to work. Maybe if you changed the kind of work that you do or who you work for, things will change? But then you find that new job and discover that no, it wasn’t that at all. What is it that will bring me peace, a little contentment? Who am I? Why am I here?
If you want your story to land inside the tip of the Maslow’s pyramid, these are the questions that your protagonists should face too. But remember, like their human counterparts, your fictional protagonists will distract themselves in innumerable ways from contending directly with them. They chase wants not needs. And in most instances, they will not consciously understand or reconcile the need to know themselves (who they really are) until the very end of the story.
Jake Gittes doesn’t know why he’s decided to put his life on the line to help Evelyn Mulwray and her sister escape the clutches of Noah Cross, but he does it anyway. What’s remarkable is that we, as the viewer of the movie, never question why he makes that choice. Because Robert Towne did such a materful job revealing Gittes’ deep character while he toils away toward his conscious object of desire—his wanting to find the girl—the audience is able to intuit his need. It’s a need we all have.
Gittes may not know why he put his life on the line, but we do. Gittes needs to uncover the truth so that he can bring justice to the world. Like the Cerberus hellhounds who guard the Underworld, the authentic Jack Gittes (the self-actualized Jake Gittes) is a sentry for justice. He does what we know our better selves would do in the same circumstances. He fights for what’s right.
The Story is so great that even when Gittes fails, we never question his decision to try. He didn’t get what he wanted (to save the world), but he got what he needed (a better understanding of the world).