It isn't sufficient just to want—you've got to ask yourself what you are going to do to get the things you want. ― Franklin D. Roosevelt

The Things We Want

Even before the last candy disappears from the bottom of the Halloween bowl, holiday promotions start showing up in my mail and inbox. Every retailer in America seems bent on knowing what I want and giving it to me at a discount. The thing is, though, that as I get older, I find that I don’t really want things with the same intensity that I did when I was a child. Or, perhaps it’s simply that the things I want don’t come in a catalog. Unfortunately, it takes a bit of the fun out of holidays and birthdays. It isn’t like the time that I wanted a cat so desperately and then got one and was so overcome that I cried. 

Wanting Isn’t Bad

Wanting is important; it’s actually central to storytelling. According to David Mamet, every scene hinges on three foundational questions:

Who wants what from whom?

What happens if they don’t get it?

Why now?

When you answer these questions, you’ll find that you can deepen your understanding of the motivations and emotional stakes driving your characters. While the motivation is often (usually) unstated, it’s the key to having the scene make sense to the reader. And if the answer to the questions are something like, “Well, nobody really wants anything I just need this scene to explain why the shark is there,” then CUT that scene and fold the information into another scene—one in which someone wants something from someone else.

What Others Want

I’ve also used these questions to evaluate competing priorities.

For example, if I’m supposed to attend a board meeting but my daughter needs help with a project that’s due the next day. What does the board want from me? What happens if they don’t get it? Is now the only time I can provide it? If the stakes are low for the board and high for my daughter (or vice versa), the decision becomes clearer.

This week, pay attention to the competing wants that guide your characters and even the choices in your day. Let those wants show you the stakes, and the outcome just might reveal itself.