Weekly Updates

Audio Version

  • A reminder not to comment on the feedback you get for your script. When we send out our writing into the world, we no longer control how people receive it and (everyone will receive it differently). This is an opportunity to see how it is received.
  • Strange request: use numbers or letters at the start of file names. We had a case of an ellipsis making a script disappear this week.
  • Grading is available on UR Courses. We had them inputed but we're having some troubles with getting it to calculate. If you have any concerns, please let me know.

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Internal Wants

Audio Version

A few quick reminders about story and want

Story = Want/Obstacle + Action/Response + Outcome

A character wants something but an obstacle stands in her way. Therefore, she takes an action, which gets a response, which will bringing new actions, and  new responses, until she comes to an outcome, that is either positive or negative.

  • Want drives story and character.
  • Want is only dramatic if the protagonist can’t imagine a world without it.
  • Want is the flag that you as a writer set in the ground to signal the end.
  • Want never ends, even after we get it, but it can transform.

What are Internal Wants?

Moving down into internal wants

They are the deep internal needs that drive us through life—less concrete like money or a relationship, and more abstract like security or love. They are the unchanging wants that will drive broad phases of our life.

One way to consider them is through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Although it has little scientific truth—and is in many ways problematic—it is a good way to visualize the external and internal wants.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Other ways to consider it


In life, we spend a lot of time organizing ourselves into a pecking order—a position of status within the community. With every action—how we talk and look, our body language, how we occupy a space—we claim our position in status.

We can be either high or low status, but this position is all relative. We may play a high or low status, but others will judge us separately from that. Status exists in the eye of the beholder.

For example, we may believe ourselves to be low status but the world may see us as high status—and these two opposing ideas can both be correct at the same time.

To achieve status, we either dominate others, or earn prestige by being impressive or admired by others, or we can be submissive. And we will form coalitions with others to achieve dominance or prestige, and our affiliations with others will earn us status.

Happiness and pain

Often, when asked what they want, people will say happiness or pleasure.

However, in Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman argues that people are loss-averse, meaning that they are more likely to act to avert a loss than to achieve a gain.

This finding means that we are more like to avoid pain than we are to pursue happiness. As Nir Eyal says in Indistractable:

Simply put, the drive to relieve discomfort is the root cause of all our behavior, while everything else is a proximate cause.

Other Examples of Internal Wants

It’s essential to notice that some of these wants (like external ones), can be positive or negative:

  • Purpose
  • Hope
  • Balance
  • Appreciation
  • Acceptance
  • Approval
  • Attention
  • Belonging
  • Connectedness
  • Control
  • Fear - we can be driven by fear, but if a character wants to overcome it, then it may become an obstacle.
  • Independence
  • Maturity
  • Respect
  • Security
  • Self-worth
  • Stability
  • Trust
  • The past or future (neither is truly reachable)
  • A memory that can't be reclaimed
  • Love*
  • Power*
  • Guilt*
  • Redemption*
  • Revenge*

Internal Want in Story

Since internal wants drive vast parts of our life, they often exist before your story begins, and sometimes won’t be resolved before the story is finished.

They are your character’s spine and drive and shape your story, and they are our first real steps towards the theme.

They are expressed through the same structure of want and obstacle and visualized through action and response.

Sometimes, they will be conscious of their actions, but they are occasionally unaware because it subconsciously acts upon them. If they are hidden, even from themselves, it must manifest itself in external, physical ways—especially if they are negative.

For example, a character may say they want a relationship, but continue to destroy those around them, suggesting they may have a negative want occurring deep down.

Important, though, is that although they may not know what their internal want is, you as a writer should because there is going to be one whether you realize it or not.

Side discussion: Desire, need, and want

Script Doctor John Truby says that story exists on two tracks: desire and need. The protagonist’s desire is the external, concrete goal that is the focus of the story, while their need is their core character flaw that they must overcome to grow and resolve their external desire.

Although I respect his approach, I still feel this limits and overcomplicates our understanding of story. It feels rigid to suggest want cannot shift (it may end where it began, but the character’s want needs to sometime change on its journey). As well, desire and need is a rephrasing of the levels that want and obstacles operate.

Another difference of terms is between needs and wants.  Needs can sometimes refer to a person’s basic requirements to survive, while wants are often goods and services an individual would like, but not essential.

Tactics to show internal want

Action and Dialogue

A simple tactic for a character to reveal their inner want is to express it through action and dialogue.

However, for this to happen, a character must either be self-aware of what they want—“I want to be appreciated.”—or revealed through external struggle—“I’m not appreciated by people.”

External object for an internal want

A little more complicated—but of course, a more effective tactic—is for a character to pursue an external object for an internal want, only to discover in the outcome that they wanted something else.

You’ll see this in films where characters achieve their want but then are left unsatisfied and searching (i.e., Hurt Locker).

A shifting external want that reveals a deeper internal want

A similar tactic is for a character to pursue an external want to a positive outcome, then shifts his focus to maintaining that want.

  • Macbeth wants the throne, but he continues to kill anyone who threatens him once he receives it. He wants power and control and not merely the throne.
  • In Carnal Knowledge, Jack Nicholson’s character never finds the “perfect relationship,” because he has a deep misogynistic need to belittle women.

External want that acts counter to their internal want

A final complex tactic to reveal internal want is to have a character pursue an external want counter to their internal want.

  • In Pretty Woman, the main character spends the movie buying companies and then breaking them up to sell separately. This is his way of getting back at a father who never loved him. Although his father is dead, he finds reconciliation by not destroying another older man’s company.
  • In Shrek, he wants to clear out the swamp to be left alone, only because he’s scared that people won’t like him.


One final note about a much broader idea: subtext.

Characters can pursue internal wants through external means, yet not speak about what they are seeking. The interior want is never suggested, but we know the character is wanting a particular thing through cues.

Unfortunately, this can be easily (and often) misinterpreted.

Final thoughts:

  • Dramatic Want can only exist if the protagonist can’t imagine a world without it.
  • Interior want drives and defines the character.
  • We show internal want the same way we show external want: through conflict (want/obstacle) and action/response.
  • Want never ends, even after we get it…but it can also transform.
  • Inner want is the first real step towards a theme.

Film 210 - Week 7 Exercise - Internal Want

Write a 2-3 page script of any type that contains a character that pursues an inner want against an external obstacle. The character must take external actions to achieve their internal want. This must culminate in an outcome.

Marking Criteria:

  • Does it achieve the purpose of this week’s assignment?
  • Proper screenplay format (including active, present tense; sluglines; character introductions) and spelling, punctuation, grammar (5 mistakes allowed per script).
  • Proper use of WOARO. A character with a want must reach an outcome, either getting it or being incapable of getting it by the end.
  • Proper page count of the assignment.

Due: Sunday, October 18 at midnight (Saskatchewan time).

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