“The thing the character wants need not be violent or spectacular; it is the intensity of the wanting that counts.” Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft
And this is true for both comedy and drama. Think of Carrie in Homeland, Walt in Breaking Bad, or any of the characters in Seinfeld, Broad City, or Portlandia. Big or small, funny or dramatic, you know what these characters want, and that they want it intensely. Kramer, come on, he wants everything intensely. And because they want it intensely — we care, we laugh, we cry.
I should stop here. Almost. Except.
The intensity of the want ties directly into Trey Parker’s and Matt Stone’s “therefore and but.” It ties in because the “therefore and but” flows directly from a character wanting something. And one of the great ways to show the reader or audience that a character wants something intensely is to place some great big “buts” in the middle of the path to what they want.
Going back to Homeland. Watch just the first few minutes of the pilot. Carrie wants intel from a prisoner that’s going to be executed in Baghdad, where Carrie is driving as the show opens. Therefore she calls Estes (her CIA boss), and asks him to intervene in the execution. But Estes shuts her down, and tells her to stop. But she ignores his order. Meanwhile, she’s driving to the prison to get the intel, but she gets stuck in traffic, therefore she leaves the car in traffic and walks to the prison … and it goes on, “but” after “but,” until the prisoner whispers something in her ear, as she’s being dragged away by the guards.
When I write this stuff out, it seems so basic, but the visual of Carrie leaving the car in traffic is a wonderful way to convey the intensity of her want. If she didn’t care: “Oh well, stuck in traffic, looks like I’ll be late for the execution. Wonder what he would’ve told me about the imminent attack?” In fact, the whole opening of the pilot is an illustration of how to show intense want of a character.
To summarize. The intensity of the want sets up the therefores and buts — the cause and effect — that get great stories rolling.
Now, I want to get back to writing my pilot. Therefore, I’m going to end this post — no ands, ifs, or buts.
Photograph: Beacon Hill