Every couple months or so I get the urge to tinker with writing a musical. Theatre isn’t in my background, though storytelling is, and this urge isn’t so strong that I feel this is what I was truly meant to do. I would be happy to realize this one story idea as a musical (and hopefully have it be mildly successful) and leave it at that.
It’s most likely a certain lack of “true” conviction that prevents me from realizing this project. In short, the need to do isn’t as compelling as my other writing projects.
This idea of the compelling need is fairly crucial to the idea of modern Western narratives. We want to read about and follow main characters with a compelling need that will, ultimately, drive the story and the character’s development though the story in a way that we cannot put it down. In short, the reader must be equally compelled to want to find out how it ends.
It was while I was tinkering with this compelling need for the main character in my musical – sometimes also called a controlling desire – that I realized how important it was to instill this sense of compulsion within the reader/audience. This idea of building a character whose desire lines are strongly etched that in turn cause the reader to become invested in that character’s needs that the, the reader/audience, adopts those desires themselves. It isn’t simply a question of manipulation, it’s a form of narrative alchemy that (when done correctly) subtly eases the reader into a position where they care about how and whether a character realizes their desires.
But then I thought: whose desires are really being actualized here, whose wants and needs?
Like a Möbius strip my thoughts circle around and I find myself wondering about the artist, the writer, the musician who feels compelled to create. We talk about the creative act as something the creative person cannot help but chase down. Like mountain climbers, creative people do what they do because they must. It is their controlling desire, their compelling need.
Or is it a want?
No one can be said to actually need to create. We need to eat, and breathe, and fulfill social and moral obligations, but the act of creation… can that really be something the individual needs? And this want (or need) in the writer, its to create a character with desires of their own, designed to compel a reader to care about those fictitious needs to the point where all three – writer, character, reader – come to a satisfactory meeting place where all needs are fulfilled.
Suddenly I understand what is wrong with a lot of the fiction that I find wanting. It is easy to say that the story didn’t interest, or that the plot was unbelievable, or that the characters were simply flat and two-dimensional, but the real problem is that I simply didn’t feel the writer’s compelling need to tell the story at hand. It may have lacked conviction, or somehow been muddled, but in the end no matter how sincerely the author may believe in their story and characters, they have failed in the same way a person fails to be funny at a party when they cannot retell a joke correctly. The parts may all be there, and in the correct order, but without the conviction to deliver the lines with care and precision – what is sometimes called comic timing – the punchline comes with tepid and polite laughter. Worse if the joke has to be explained.
I have been reading graphic novels lately, and though I am not ready to discuss them by name – they aren’t released for a few months yet, and I’d like to digest them a bit more – I am finding the ones that have been falling flat for me fail to convince me of their authorial need to tell the story. Naturally, those that I enjoy deliver so completely that I don’t even notice at first how well they are conveying their author’s urgency.
In the end what I’ve finally understood (because I can’t believe I haven’t been taught this in dozens of ways) is that the difference between “good” and “bad” writing is the difference between the way a small child wants and needs. The want is cloying, whining, and churlish while the need is essential, enthusiastic, and inclusive.
So my question to all my writer friends, real and virtual, is this: Are your stories telegraphing your wants or your needs?