All characters have desires. Desire is the engine that drives your story, it’s what gives the hero a goal—find the killer, fall in love, destroy the death star.
If your characters get what they want on page one, there’s no story left. It’s your job, as an author, to give your characters what they want at exactly the right time. Or not at all.
Until then, you have to play with that desire, use it to develop the drama that will push the story along and pull your readers with it.
There are a few straightforward ways to use your characters’ desires to inject drama into your story, to fuel that engine that will keep your readers engaged.
These techniques are useful for when you’re stuck, when you’re not quite sure what’s going to happen next. They can also help to get back control of your characters when they run off and do their own thing, when they stray away from your carefully plotted plan.
The most obvious way is to keep your character wanting.
As I said, the story (usually) ends when your characters get what they want. Keep that goal just out of reach until you’re ready, until it’s time to give your characters—and the readers—what they want.
Too much, too little, too late
Sometimes you can give your characters what they want and still keep the story going.
If you give them too much of what they want, that will also create conflict. You can even give them too much right at the start and use that as a story premise. Reality shows like The Bachelor use this to drive a full season. He wants a bride and now he has to choose from 25 potential partners.
Giving too much can even be like giving someone dying of thirst a whole bottle of water: if they drink it all in one go, they’ll be sick. Your characters will have to be careful when they get more than they need. Will they have the kind of self control necessary to handle it?
Similarly, if you give your characters just a taste of what they really want, that can lift their desires even higher and increase their motivation to get more.
Money is the obvious example here, but you can use time too. Give them enough to get within reach of their goals, but not quite enough. They will then desperately need that last little bit.
And then there’s when your characters get exactly what they want, but it’s too late. They don’t need it any more.
This works especially well with smaller desires throughout the plot, in scenes or in individual chapters. They find the combination for the bank vault, but they’ve already blown the doors off and now the cops are on their way.
This can be useful to reveal the characters’ frustrations and emphasize how great their desires are, and it can be used to add to humor too, to lighten the mood a little.
And now for something different
Your character needs hard cash, but you give her a bag of stolen diamonds. Now she’s got another problem: how’s she going to turn those jewels into briefcase full of bank notes?
Give your characters something different, something close to what they want, but not quite, and you’ll show how badly their desire is for that one specific thing, that nothing else will do.
You can also completely frustrate your characters by handing them the opposite of what they need. Need to get across the desert fast? OK, here’s a lazy old mule. They need some time to evacuate the city? Too bad, the terrorist has just brought forward the deadline.
See how creative they get when they get the one thing they really don’t want.
Anyone but him
There it is, the one thing your hero really wants, just out of reach. He can see it, smell it. He just needs to get a little closer. But wait. Who’s that? Oh no, not the bad guy, not his arch rival? Surely not, but yes, it is. And now he’s running off with the gold, with the woman he always loved, with the evidence to convict the killer.
How many times have we seen Indiana Jones have the treasure snatched from his grasp? And yet it works (almost) every time. ‘Yay, Indy,’ the audience yells. Then: ‘Aw, no, not him, not again.’
You could even hand your characters their greatest desire, then snatch it just as quickly away again. It’s cruel, but drama isn’t always kind, and it’s these kinds of techniques, this manipulation of your characters’ desires, that will keep readers turning pages.
A version of this article was first published on 22 June 2018 as part of Jim’s regular column on WriterUnboxed.