Lesson: Inner Wants

Audio Version

Until now I have been discussing external wants. Things that can be seen and heard within the story.

Now we move to internal wants—things that aren’t as easy to visualize.

Defining internal wants

Inner wants are the deep internal needs that drive us through life. They are less concrete and more abstract—like security or independence.

Think of your own life. We often go through stages as we grow up:

  1. As babies, we may want security and love.
  2. As children, we may want independence.
  3. As teenagers, we may want social connections.
  4. As adults, we may want security.
  5. As seniors, we may want a legacy.

Or consider something like Erikson’s psychosocial stages:

A diagram of Erikson’s psychosocial stages

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—which is problematic in its methodology and ideas of universal needs—is a way to visualize the layers of external and internal want.

A diagram of Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Perhaps the best way to consider inner want is the deep internal needs that drive us through our lives. Often they are a reaction or response to something, like a desire for independence, or a desire, like love.

Similar to our discussion about protagonist and antagonist characters previously, inner wants can be either positive or negative. One character may be driven by a desire for self-actualization, while another may want chaos or violence.

Also, your character may be aware of their internal want, but it may also be something acting upon them unconsciously (which could make it a possible obstacle). Either way, you as a writer should know. Internal want always occurs, so you should be aware of it so that you can shape it.

Desire vs. Need

In John Truby's book The Anatomy of Story, he says that a character has both desire and need.

Desire drives the story. It is "what your hero wants in the story, his particular goal." This is the external want.

But your character also has a need, which is "what the hero must fulfill within himself in order to have a better life. It usually involves overcoming his weaknesses and changing, or growing, in some way." This is the internal want.

That weakness occurs because "something is missing within him that is so profound, it is ruining his life."

Internal Want is your Character’s Spine

Actors often seek their character’s spine, the underlying motivation that drives their character. Once they discover it, they can hang the rest of the actions, wants, and obstacles on that spine. Internal want is that spine.

In a lot of writing books, they’ll use different terms for external and internal wants ( desire vs. need, needs vs. wants, motivations vs. quest, spine, objective, intention, etc.). Don’t stress about the terminology. Just understand what is going on.

Internal want is why we don’t need to set up our story

We should never be “setting up” stories. Instead, we get to the conflict as soon as possible. Internal want is how we do that.

Before the external want (the main focus of your story) appears, you’ll show us the conflict of the internal want of your character.

Internal want is a first step toward the theme

We'll discuss the theme later, but when approaching it, the number one rule is not to make your character talk about the theme. Talking about the theme is bad.

So how do you do it? By showing it through the character’s internal wants.

Examples of inner wants


In Will Storr's The Science of Storytelling, he states that the mission of the brain is control—whether it is a mental model to make sense of the world around us or to change it in order to gain control.

It's by learning how to control the world and understand it that we can function with it.

Happiness and pain

Often, when asked what they want, people will say they want 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 likely 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.


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. Even if we think we are high or low status—and play to that status—others may not perceive us this way. It is all in the eyes 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:

  1. dominate others
  2. earn prestige by being impressive or admired by others
  3. be submissive
  4. form coalitions with others to change our status

Other Examples of Internal Wants

  • purpose
  • hope
  • balance
  • appreciation
  • acceptance
  • approval
  • attention
  • belonging
  • connectedness
  • love
  • power
  • guilt
  • redemption
  • identity

Or revisits Erikson's psychosocial stages or Maslow's hierarchy of needs for ideas.

Ways to show inner wants

Use external actions, responses, and dialogue

The easiest way to show internal wants is to be direct—which works whether they are self-aware or not.

They can express what they want (“I want to be appreciated.”), take actions to achieve their inner want (taking different tactics to be appreciated), or show responses that express it.

For example, a character who wants to be cared for will pursue that love through actions (either verbally or physically) and we know that they achieve their goal when they receive an external outcome, like a hug, a kind word, or some other expression and they respond to it positively.

Again, think about the specific actions and responses your characters take.

They find an external object to fulfill their inner want

An example might be the pursuit of money for security or control. But even then, achieving it will likely not end the internal want. Often characters will pursue something only to discover they want something else.

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

Remember that since internal want extends beyond the edges of your story, your characters may have been seeking it long before your story begins—and possibly long after your story is over.

Therefore, they don't need to receive a lot in the outcome. A smile from another character may be all it takes for someone to move closer toward their goal.


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

Unfortunately, this can be easily—and is often—misunderstood.

A shifting external want can reveal a deeper internal want

A character may state that they want something, but their shifting pursuit of that want shows that perhaps the character is looking for something more internal.

For example, in Carnal Knowledge, Jack Nicholson’s character never finds the “perfect relationship,” because he's actually misogynistic and weaponizes relationships.

They pursue an external want that acts counter to their internal want

A final tactic to reveal internal want is to have a character pursue an external want to protect themselves from their internal conflict.

  • In Pretty Woman, the main character buys companies and then breaks them up to sell separately. This is his way of hurting his father, a man who never loved him, when in fact he really wishes for the love and approval of the man. In the end, he finds reconciliation by not destroying an older man's company.
  • In Shrek, the title character wants to clear his swamp so he can be left alone, but it's only because he’s scared that people won’t like him.

When Writing Inner Wants:

  • Always ask yourself: What does your character want? What obstacle stands in their way? What actions do they take? What are the responses? Do they get it or not?
  • In the story, nothing should ever come easily. It is about struggle—no matter what.
  • Remember, want and obstacle are two sides of the same coin. Be very clear about what your character's want is and what is their obstacle (we'll revisit this when we do inner obstacles).
  • Adding inner wants and inner obstacles is one way to add complexity to your story. But don't over-complicate things. Always default to WOARO to organize your thoughts.


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

‼️ Be very careful not to make your story about an inner obstacle.

Marking Criteria:

  • Written in the active, present tense.
  • Proper screenplay format (including sluglines; parenthesis, ALL CAPS on the introduction of characters).
  • Proper use of descriptions.
  • Includes a title page that uses the proper format.
  • Only 5 errors are allowed on each script.

This assignment is due Sunday, Oct. 8 at midnight ( Saskatchewan time ).