Every time you start a story, you want to quickly establish a problem for the main character to solve and their intention of solving it. Maybe a hacked up dead body is found, and a detective intends to bring the murderer to justice. Possibly a divorced woman who’s been by her herself for the past five years sees a man she’s interested in and decides to meet him. Perhaps a starship captain finds a far-flung colony where his brother lived has been destroyed by some unknown force.
Regardless of the genre, as the story progresses, the main characters’ intentions must be established at the beginning of each scene and then played out. In fact, that’s true of every significant character in your tale.
Characters’ intentions drive your plot. When they are the focus of your writing, your story has action, tension and suspense because some characters will oppose and even temporarily thwart your story’s protagonist. The consequences of that action sets up the next scene. When those intentions aren’t the focus, the story drifts with irrelevant scenes, and character development suffers.
Wants and needs
As you outline and write each scene, always ask what each of your characters in it want and need. From that arises an action they intend to take. The scene then is about the characters in conflict with one another.
For example, our detective, in the scene following the discovery of the murdered body, decides to interview the deceased’s parents to see if he can get any leads. Because the body was of a teenage girl – and he has a teenage daughter himself – this case is personal. He understands the pain those parents must feel. He wants to solve the crime. He needs to solve it or he’ll feel like he’s failing his duty to protect – not just in his duty as a policeman but in his obligations as a father. He intends to develop a list of suspects.
The other characters in the scene – the deceased girl’s mother and father – must somehow oppose the detective. If they cooperate fully, the scene risks being quite dull. So establish their wants, needs and intentions as well. Perhaps the parents are illegal immigrants. They have a natural fear of police and of being returned to their home country, so they want and need to keep secret most facts about their identity. Possibly they even have a fairly good idea who the killer is – they think it’s the coyote who escorted them across the border and with who their teen daughter, much to their chagrin, developed a romantic relationship. Their very lives could be endangered if they name the coyote a suspect.
Such a scene between two opposing intentions can be fraught with drama, tension and suspense. The detective must use every interview trick he can think of to win over the parents and get them to talk. The parents must resist every overture from the detective while dealing with the inner conflict of obtaining justice for their daughter yet protecting their lives.
The detective should leave the interview frustrated and with no leads. But he knows the parents are hiding something. This sets up the story’s next scene – the detective knows if he can figure out why the parents are so reluctant to speak he might then be able to get them to…or he might even have some suspects.
Of course, the scene could unfold in thousands of different ways just by slightly altering the characters’ wants, needs and intentions and how they play out.
As making those decisions about your characters, ask yourself a couple of quick questions:
• What are the characters’ immediate needs? The detective’s foremost need in the above scene is to get a list of suspects so he can check out each one to determine if they are the murderer. He does not immediately need to know from the coroner specifics about the murder weapon, though that will be helpful information once he has a list of suspects.
• How will the main character’s intentions be partially fulfilled? While the protagonist’s intentions cannot be fulfilled too early in the story, they must at least be incrementally met in each scene so that the story can progress. If they aren’t, the main character never will solve the story’s problem. While our detective in the above scene didn’t get a list of suspects, he did determine a new way that he might come up with a list – figure out what the parents are hiding.
• How do the characters’ intentions propel the plot forward? If the characters spar over something that has little or no relationship to solving the story’s problem, then the intentions don’t move the story ahead. If the intention of the parents in the above scene was to lash out at police because officers never respond to crime in their neighborhood, that probably doesn’t advance the story. It doesn’t give the detective any information that could help him develop a list of potential suspects.