Goals

Digging into relationships

If the relationships in your story are flat or confusing you, these acting analysis techniques can help to heighten the dynamics and unravel the tangles. They’re also great idea generators.

A 3-PART SERIES
Part 1: Roles    |    Part 2: Goals     |     Part 3: Emotional bank accounts

Goals = actions

Roles help you think about the relationship. Goals gets your character to think about what they want to make happen in the scenes you write.

To get there ask, “What does Amy want from Fred right now?” What do they need so badly from the other person that they’re willing to take extra steps to get it? That’s their goal for the scene.

Some examples:

  • I want my tasty tart (role) to give me big, sloppy kisses (action).
  • I want my father confessor (role) to listen without judgment and forgive me (action).
  • I want my cheerleader (role)  to slap me on the back and say I’m doing a great job (action).
  • I want my Help desk support (role) to fix all my computer, phone or login issues without getting angry, frustrated or judgmental (action+attitude).

This is what your character wants the other person in the scene to do to affirm the relationship. The trick is, how do they get them to do it? Do they bring a gift, give a massage, share a story or play a game? There are as many tactics as there are situations.

The character’s job is to use these strategies to tease what they want out of the other person.

Now, meanwhile, the other character wants something, too. As writer you need to know that so you can fine tune the conflict. Here’s a quick attempt I sketched out:

Jaime arrives at the restaurant and since his girlfriend Janet isn’t there, he finds a table. Well, guess what? His ex Amanda walks over with this guy that she’s dripping over. She introduces him as her fiance. When Janet arrives, Amanda and her fiance drift to the bar.

Janet’s had a hard drive over here and is pissed… super duper pissed about the availability of parking in this city. She wants to rant and she wants him to be her ranting partner. As soon as she sits down she pulls some paper out of her purse and starts a petition. She demands Jaime brainstorm with her.

Amanda’s sitting at the bar, looking over and smiling at Jaime from time to time. Jaime wants to show her that he’s past her (he isn’t). He wants Amanda to be his crazy ex. To get that, he needs Janet to be his tasty tart girlfriend. He wants her to kiss him, to ooze all over him, like she usually does. But Janet’s going on about a petition! All he needs is one kiss. One big, sloppy wet one.

Do you notice how this translates into character action? But not just any action, emotion-revealing action? As Janet’s pulling out paper and pen, ranting, Jaime’s trying to kiss her.

Also notice how part of finding the action involves finding motivation. Jaime is motivated to work for that kiss because his ex girlfriend is there.

Could some motivation be added for Janet’s reason to write a letter? Could she decide that the restaurant is a great place to start getting signatures and start running around. In fact, what if a city counsellor is in the restaurant, too? Maybe Jaime’s ex is a city counsellor. (Oh my!)

Okay, perhaps that’s stretching it. (bit of a shrug) But it does demonstrate how playing around with the details of a scene can heighten the dynamics.

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Watch for negative goals

Negative goals sap away dramatic potential. Examples of negative intentions include:

  • To get away from…
  • Want nothing do with…
  • To want the other person to crawl up and die…

Negative intentions (to leave, destroy) end relationships. A story is all about how relationships change and move forward. If your character wants ‘nothing’ from the other person, what’s keeping them in the story at all? Why don’t they just run?

They have to want something from the other person, and it’s your job to figure that out (or cut them).

There’s no dramatic benefit to a negative choice. And that’s what we’re interested in as writers, digging into the relationships to create dramatic scenes full of conflict.

One additional note: a character may appear negative on the surface, but you can’t settle for appearances. As Michael Shurtleff says in his most wonderful book, Audition:

The story of Chekhov's "The Three Sisters" 
is not about three sisters who didn't make 
it to Moscow; it's about three sisters 
who fight like hell to get there.

Okay, last tool in this series: emotional bank accounts.


Roles come from my fantabulous scene study instructor, Ron Singer. Goals courtesy of Michael Shurtleff’s Audition. Emotional bank accounts, business guru, Stephen Covey.

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Roles

Digging into relationships

If the relationships in your story are flat or confusing you, these acting analysis techniques can help to heighten the dynamics and unravel the tangles. They’re also great idea generators.

A 3-PART SERIES
Part 1: Roles    |    Part 2: Goals     |     Part 3: Emotional bank accounts

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Roles

Relationships have labels like friend, wife, mother, sister. But since labels are factual, they tell us nothing about the health of the relationship. Is a marriage amazingly romantic or painfully toxic? The plain old label married doesn’t tell us.

To clarify, we need to look at what’s going on at an emotional level. That is, what they want from each other, expect from one another, and whether these wants and expectations are satisfied. Roles provide a short hand for doing that.

Roles come out of stories and our culture. They are icons as lofty as knight in shining armour or ordinary as helpdesk customer service rep.

If I want my boyfriend to be my knight in shining armour, I want him to come to my rescue. If he wants me to be his princess, he wants me to be a girly girl who sits there looking pretty and swoons at his manliness. This relationship has a chance of working out because what we want from each other is complimentary. But it isn’t very interesting, is it?

But if I want him to be my cheerleader and root for my legal career while he wants me to be his doting mother, who packs his lunch for him every day and tucks him in at night, we might have problems.

Finding a single, strong role allows the actor or writer to clarify what the character wants and expects from the other person.

In preparing a scene, an actor will complete the phrase: “I want Johnny to be my….”

  • Seducer
  • Play mate
  • Mentor
  • Love of my life
  • Equal…

The more descriptive and specific the role, the more useful it is in figuring out the relationship for that situation. Which brings me to another point.

As situations change, so do our wants and expectations.

At home in the kitchen I want my boyfriend to be my sous chef. When I have an appointment I expect him to be my chauffeur. Out at dinner I want him to be my entertainer.

Each character in a scene wants something from every other character in that scene, which can get complicated if taken too far. If I’m working on a scene with more than two people, I’ll focus on the important relationships and only consider the others if I have to. My aim is to understand the relationship I’m writing about, not to fill out a bureaucratic form, right?

When you’ve got some options figured out, you’re ready to put them into a scene to see how the sparks fly. That’s where goals come in.


Roles come from my fantabulous scene study instructor, Ron Singer. Goals courtesy of Michael Shurtleff’s Audition. Emotional bank accounts, business guru, Stephen Covey.

How does your character want to change the world?

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‘Should’ is a very powerful word. No other word shows us so well the ways we want to change the world.

How’s that?

It is through the word ‘should’ that we judge what is good and bad. Your boss ‘should’ consider how the employees feel. Your mother ‘should’ get herself to the doctor. Your girlfriend ‘should’ get her car in for an oil change. The bank ‘should’ have given you notice about rate changes.

All these little ‘should’s mount up. Oh, if only we were running things, the world would be a perfect place!

As we go through our days our critical eye scans the people, processes and things we come across. Just like Goldilocks, we judge each as either inferior, superior or just right. The highways are badly designed. Look at that guy driving like a maniac. Gosh, that girl is gorgeous. How can a bank teller not know how to process a foreign exchange transaction? Oh, here’s one of those new streetcars, I like how silent they are; finally our city has done something right!

The word ‘should’ is all about judgement. This should be that way, not this way. That should be this way, not that way.One thing is good and another is bad. The judgements are typically more negative than positive because these are our attempts to make the world perfect. Nudging things this way and that. It’s human nature.

How does a writer use this? To uncover what’s going on under the surface of your character’s relationship to the world.

Before you write a scene, consider what each character thinks the others ‘should’ or ‘should not’ do. For example if we were to consider the relationship of a married couple, we might consider what they think others should or shouldn’t do:

Martha thinks her husband Jason should…

  • Be making more money
  • Treat her like a woman once in a while (which means telling her she’s beautiful)
  • Stop bugging her about her drinking

Jason thinks Martha should…

  • Stop drinking (she’s downing almost a bottle a night on her own, for crying out loud)
  • Show some gratitude for all he does
  • Get a job

Each of us attempts to change the world in ways that range from the blunt to subtle.

“Are you sure you really want to do that?”
“It would be nice to afford a vacation once a year, but not on what you make.”
“Are you sure you want another glass of wine tonight, dear?”
“What have you done to your hair?”

“How dare you?”
Translation: You’re acting bigger than your britches and I’m going to bring you down a notch because you have no right to be different from what I expect you to be.

One common attempt at behaviour modification is to globalize:

“All you ever want to do is sit on the couch.”
“You never listen to me.”
“You’re always so mean.”

The other character, the person who is being accused of ‘always’ or ‘never’ doing something, tends to become defensive.

Having your characters globalize is useful, because we all do this, don’t we? But it is also a writer’s trap. The back and forth of accusing and defending can turn into “tit for tat”.

“You never listen to me.”
“Yes I do.”
“No you don’t.”
“Oh no, I do!”

Most readers want something deeper than this. They want a distillation of the conflict, not every moment played out in minute agony. Unless, of course, that agony is true agony. (But I digress.)

If a character is judging everyone else, they are usually doing the same to themselves. So, after you’ve looked at how your character is judging everyone else, you need to apply the same brush to their thoughts about themselves.

In the mirror, some of us see someone who ‘should’ get her hair done. Who ‘should’ exercise more, eat better, drink less, call her mother, and on and on. Some of us, however, suspend our judgement. We have reasons for the spare tire of flab around our middle, for our callous behaviour to a colleague or friend.

The act of exploring what characters think everyone else “should” be (doing, thinking) is to give you insight into the relationships beneath the gloss they show the world. Those insights help you to develop characters that breathe and thus write richer, more complex scenes.

And remember, it is not what a character says that reveals their character. It is what they do.

Actions always speak much louder than words.