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Finding the intention of want

Digging deep for the intention of the scene and story.

David Gane
David Gane
1 min read

It’s easy to understand that the want of a scene may not be its outcome. The hero might want the treasure, but it doesn’t mean they will get it by the end of the scene.

But also, what appears to be the want of a scene—often stated or telegraphed by a character—may not be the actual want of the scene. It may run deeper than surface level.

Judith Butler gives the example of Daniel Day-Lewis from the film Last of the Mohicans:

he tells Madeleine Stowe that he will find her. This moment was used in all the trailers, but so out of context that it sounded like a declaration of his intent, as if he were playing the intention “to get her to believe that he would find her.” It seemed to me like a cliché. Later, when I saw the movie and the line was said in context I could see that Day-Lewis, an excellent actor, had not made Hawkeye’s intent “to get her to believe that he would find her,“ which would have been the hackneyed “movie” choice, stuck on the surface of the words. Although I have no inside information as to how Day-Lewis works, it looked to me as though his choice was something more visceral, perhaps “to calm,” or “to soothe” or “give her courage” for the ordeal ahead.

In searching for this deeper choice, it’s helpful to consider a technique like Jerry Cleaver suggests:

This could also be called the why-what-how technique. With this technique, you go through your story and ask why? of every single line... In fiction, we’re looking for the root cause, the deepest level of the experience, the most personal and specific reasons. We take nothing at face value.

So looking at the Last of the Mohicans scene:

Why does he say that to her?

What does he think will happen to her?

How does he think he will get back to her?

I’m certain there are better questions, but within each scene, act, and overall story, that is for you to discover.

David Gane Twitter

Co-writer of the Shepherd and Wolfe young adult mysteries, the internationally award-winning series, and teacher of storytelling and screenwriting.