Saturday, December 15, 2018

The Ten Urges That Stories Can Satisfy

Hi guys! Sorry, I’d meant to do another book before Christmas but time has gotten away from me. Instead, let’s just have one big blow-out December post. I’ve talked about urges in the past, but recently, in giving someone notes, I had to get more specific about what I was talking about, so I came up with a possibly-complete list of the ten urges that stories can satisfy. Most stories should satisfy 3-6 of these (though Rushmore seems to only do two).

  • To Laugh (Comedy, everything else)

Almost every story can benefit from a dose of humor. It’s easier to identify with funny heroes. Funny sidekicks, love interests, and even villains can also increase our enjoyment of a story. On the flip side, laughing at a hero or side kick’s foibles, bad luck, or cluelessness can also bond us to them, since it gives us permission to laugh at our own failings.

  • To Gasp (Thriller, Horror, Action)

We gasp when things are shocking or horrific. This can also be referred to the “edge of your seat” quality.

  • To Swoon (Romance, everything else)

We want to share a hero’s romantic hopes and fears. We want to share their yearning, to have that yearning thwarted painfully, perversely punished, and finally gratified (or tragically thwarted once and for all, which brings us to our next urge…)

  • To Cry (Romance, Tragedy, Drama)

We cry when things are tragic. Things are most tragic when they’re bitterly ironic. When the hero simply fails despite their best efforts, that’s just a bummer, not tragic. When they fail because of their best efforts, or realize they must choose to fail, the tears come.

  • To Dread (Thriller, Drama, Tragedy)

The deepening sinking sensation that something awful is going to happen is perversely pleasurable for an audience, all the better if we’re not exactly sure what form the disaster will take.

  • To Speculate (Science Fiction, Fantasy)

Sci-fi and fantasy are very different, but most fans of one are also fans of the other, albeit less so. They both offer the thrill of escapism: to imagine a world wildly different from our own and to wonder at possibilities we’ve never considered (which gives us the hope that maybe more things are possible here.)

  • To Puzzle (Mystery, everything else)

Almost every story can benefit from adding a big mystery and/or a series of satisfying mini-mysteries to solve along the way. Sometimes we’re solving the mysteries alongside the hero, sometimes they’re only mysteries to the audience.

  • To Burn (Historical Fiction, Drama)

Can one “enjoy” a movie like 12 Years a Slave? On some odd level, yes, because it’s pleasurable to burn with righteous indignation at the sight of injustice. 

  • To Lust (Romance, everything else)

This frequently but not always overlaps with swooning. We like to be turned on. In books, we mostly just lust in sex and seduction scenes, but in movies we can have the visual pleasure of sexiness onscreen in every scene.

  • To Cheer (Action, some Horror)

Once we’ve gasped, we want to release that tension by cheering. In horror, this only comes at the end, but in action stories we get lots of chances to cheer throughout. Any genre can have “stand up and cheer” moments.

And now here are two massive charts. Above, you’ll find one for the books we’ve looked at (It’s good that I have enough data to start some crunching!) and below you’ll find one for the movies we’ve looked at:

What do you guys think? Are there any urges I’ve missed? Do you disagree about the urges these stories fulfill?


Unknown said...

I might suggest something along the lines of "to ponder", for stories that raise a philosophical issue and leave you to hash it out at the end. (My example would be Gone Baby Gone, which isn't a great movie, but leaves you on the horns of a profound moral dilemma at the end. L'Amour did a somewhat similar thing. These are stories that end by starting a great discussion on the way home from the cinema.

Another I might suggest is "to illuminate". I'm aware that the moral or didactic story has fallen out of favor, but I think we actually love a story that argues a point we may feel strongly about, provided it's not too heavy handed. We might say, "I feel strongly about this issue, but I struggle to explain why in a satisfactory and emotional enough way." And then we delight in Philadelphia or Twelve Years a Slave or -- again, so maybe these two urges are connected -- L'Amour.

Anonymous said...

What about a thrilling chase scene, or a well orchestrated race against the clock, which are not really dreadful or gasp worthy, but do get your blood pumping in a satisfying way?

Harvey Jerkwater said...

To Connect (lit fic, drama)
Forming an emotional bond with a character by recognizing and relating to that character and his or her story. The feeling of emotional resonance that comes with recognizing undiscovered or underdiscussed truths about life.

I'd argue that this is a distinct aspect of a story that can't be rolled up into one of your ten. For example, take Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. It's the story of two married couples and their friendship over decades. It's not funny, it barely plays at mystery, it's not romantic at all, nor is there much in the way of drama. Halfway through the novel, the first-person narrator even says as much - nobody has an affair, the standard elements of drama are not there to be found. The novel has a few moments of "burn," but they come late. The heart of the book is a window into the lives of four people, for us to empathize with and be frustrated by them. We read and feel their humanity and our own.

To See (all genres)
Stories allow us into worlds that we would never otherwise get to see, and lets us explore. Not just fantastical worlds of SF/F, but the natural and social worlds we would never otherwise know.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is a travelogue for the undersea world. Moby Dick shows us the world of whaling in fascinating detail. The James Bond novels show us exotic locales and privileged places very few people ever go, like the elite gambling club at the start of Moonraker, and of course the movies go even farther. Stories take us Behind the Door to see the worlds of power up close. We dig that, even if the story's idea of what's Behind the Door is obvious nonsense (coughcoughTheDaVinciCodecough).

Matt Bird said...

Liam, I like those. To keep with the format, maybe the second one should be "to struggle" or "to grapple".

Anonymous, I had meant to cover that by the combination of "to gasp" and "to cheer", but it could be its own thing. I can't think of a good one word version, but it could be "to get pumped up"

Harvey, "to connect" ("to identify") is good, but of course we want to acknowledge that some stories don't satisfy fundamental urges, and that can be fine, too. "To see" is supposed to be covered by "to ponder", but I see what you're saying about the distinction. Maybe "to escape" would cover both. I don't think "to see", phrased that way, could be defined a fundamental human urge.

BC Boyer said...


I love this. I'm going to add it to many of my templates I've worked up over the years. BTW, Your Story and Scene templates are right there at the top of my list

You're the best. Your book improved my work to much.

Do you do Book/Development/Notes Consultation with 50,000 words?


Matt Bird said...

Hi BC, glad it's helpful! I charge by the page, not the word, because I'm scared of large numbers. I charge $2 a page: http://www.secretsofstory.com/2017/11/manuscript-consultation-continues.html

Patrick said...

You totally missed the urge for new quotable one liners.

MEB said...

Hi Matt -- I reckon BELOVED satisfies the urge to speculate and to puzzle. After all, when you're reading BELOVED, this strange woman shows up and has you wondering the whole time, "What *is* she? Is she an escaped, traumatised woman with memory and development issues? Is she Sethe's murdered child come back from the dead? Is she materialisation of all the dead souls who've been enslaved or unjustly murdered? Is she all of the above? Why does she have so much power over Sethe?" To me, the character Beloved, represents all those mysteries and tragedies and the drama comes from how the family reacts to her.

In any case, I've long loved your analyses here and when you've been featured on podcasts. A big thank you for all your work!

Matt Bird said...

Glad you like it, MEB!

Yeah, I guess it's kind of a mystery who the young woman is, but Morrison gives a lot of clues. I don't think we're supposed to be surprised by any revelations. You could certainly describe some of her behavior as puzzling, even if you can guess, from what we read in those first twenty pages, that this is probably the embodied ghost of the dead baby.

And yeah, you could add speculate as well, in the sense that it touches on that old issues of "what if there's a supernatural world just outside our own?", which people enjoy speculating about. It tickles that urge.

Patrick said...

Happy Holidays Matt!

I have a question. Have you ever considered doing Robert McKee style seminars?

Matt Bird said...

Happy Holidays to you too! People have asked me for seminars but they seem like a lot of work to set up, so I haven't, though it would probably pay off. I would have no idea where to even begin.

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Eczema Warrior said...

so many urges. very comprehensive . let me see if i can think of more urges hahahaha. thanks for the good read