You Can't Always Get What You Want

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 I’ve been thinking lately about something Alex Sokoloff says in her screenwriting tips for novelists workshops (and in her blog). She talks about how characters in both books and movies) often start out wanting something that they never get, but end up getting what they need instead. If you think about your favorite movies or books, you’ll see how often that’s the case. John and I recently watched Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. Excellent movie! Clint plays a man grieving the loss of his wife, a curmudgeon who wants to be left alone, especially by his Asian neighbors. Of course, he doesn’t get what he wants. Instead he gets what he needs: a family.

I think it’s important for writers to ask themselves these questions about the characters they create: What does this character want? How is it different from what he or she needs?

In Secrets She Left Behind, Keith, a seventeen-year-old boy who was burned in a fire, wants two things: the return of his mother who has disappeared, and a girlfriend who accepts him the way he is. I won’t tell you what he ultimately gets in case you haven’t yet read the book, but it’s definitely what he needs.   

Is it the same in real life? It’s so much harder, because there’s no writer pulling the strings to make sure everything turns out fine. I’ve spent the last fifteen minutes trying to figure out which of the zillion examples from my own life to share with you. Here’s one: I wanted to set my work-in-progress in Ecuador, but my editor vetoed the setting  midway through my first draft. Ultimately, the new North Carolina setting led me to create a story I truly needed to write. Or on a much grander scale, my treasured first marriage ended, but that loss ultimately brought three  stepdaughters and three grandchildren into my life. Or how about the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, which forced my lily-livered self to become quite remarkably strong?

I think it is the same in real life: we don’t always get what we want, but we often get what we need. The difference is, we have to help make it happen. More importantly, we have to recognize when it happens . . . and count it as a blessing.  


  1. Lindsay on August 17, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    It’s interesting timing this blog. I’m dealing with some… life stuff… the last few days and I’m having a hard time keeping faith that it’s going to work out for the best. Because I want it to work out one way, but I guess it’ll only work out that way if it’s what i need.
    I don’t know. I’m trying to keep the faith and have some patience.
    I just wanted to comment on the timing of this post with my current life musings

  2. Diane Chamberlain on August 17, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    Lindsay, sending you a big virtual hug!

  3. Rob Lopresti on August 17, 2009 at 10:13 pm

    Diane, this reminds me of something David Mamet a great playwright and screenwriter said. If I recall correctly he said there are three things he needs to know about every character in every scene:
    what do they want?
    why now?
    what happens if they don’t get it?
    Something to think about.

  4. Margo on August 18, 2009 at 8:10 am

    I’m reading a book right now that deals with this…Claire has spent 20 years putting her own dreams on hold…now she finally has the opportunity to move onto the life she always dreamed of but once again she has the rug pulled out from under her with one unexpected event after another…she continually asks herself ‘why now’? (as Rob mentions above)…I can’t help but think that all of this is because something better waits for Claire which will be a ‘blessing in a disguise’. I think this has happened to everyone at one time or another…in my case it has always been a ‘blessing in a disguise’

  5. Margo on August 18, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    Did I say how darling this pic is??…sure meant to.
    Photos just get better and better Diane, altho it’s hard to beat the 1 in the last post. (-O:

  6. Diane Chamberlain on August 18, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    Margo, what is the book you’re reading?
    I love this pic too, especially the cat’s eyes!
    Rob, I like the idea of thinking about each character in each SCENE in addition to what they want in the entire book. Interesting perspective.

  7. Margo on August 18, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    Diane, I’m reading SO HAPPY TOGETHER by Maryann McFadden…I love it!!…I’m only on page 100 but she writes beautifully and I can’t put it down…she is a wonderful author to read while we wait for your novels!! (-O: Maryann McFadden wrote THE RICHEST SEASON which is now out in trade paperback (large size) and I read it last year in just a few days…if you’ve never read her before I highly recommend these 2 novels…the 1st takes place on Pawley’s Island, the 2nd book is to take place on Cape Cod but I’m too early in the book to know when and if she (Claire) gets there.
    What are you reading Diane…and everyone else??

  8. Margo on August 18, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    Diane, Brenda also spoke about Maryann McFadden in your previous post and Brenda is absolutely right, everyone is in for a treat who hasn’t read her. She is from New Jersey with a love of the sea like so many of us. (-O:

  9. Diane Chamberlain on August 18, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    I’m reading In the Woods, by Tana French–an excellent mystery. Have to decide what to read when I finish it–so many choices!

  10. Lindsay on August 18, 2009 at 5:34 pm

    Diane- thank you. That is much needed right now.
    Also i meant to mention as well that the picture makes me smile. love it!
    I’m still reading Melissa Gilbert’s memoir. I’ve been too busy to read for a couple weeks but I finally picked it up again yesterday.

  11. Ann on August 18, 2009 at 7:20 pm

    Diane, I thought In The Woods was one of the best mysteries I have read in a long time. I have a copy of The Likeness [her 2nd book] but haven’t started it yet. Hope it is as good as her first.

  12. Diane Chamberlain on August 18, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    I’ve heard it’s even better, Ann. I’m not generally a mystery reader, but I love this one. The thing about reading with the Kindle: I often download a book that’s been recommended to me with no idea what the book is about. I probably wouldn’t have downloaded In the Woods had I known it was a mystery. I’m so glad I did. This was also true of Bohjalian’s Skeletons at the Feast. One of you commenters recommeded it, but I resist reading Holocaust stories and never would have downloaded it had I known. It was fantastic. I’m going to continue downloading recommended books blindly. It seems to be working for me!

  13. Ann on August 19, 2009 at 1:24 am

    Diane, I know what you mean – I just downloaded a book to my kindle that Tina Brown was talking about this morning on NPR. The title is Let the Great World Spin. She made it sound like a book I would enjoy so I downloaded it. Hope it’s good!
    Will let you know what I think of The Likeness. If it is nearly as good as In the Woods I will be pleased!

  14. Margo on August 19, 2009 at 8:22 am

    Diane and Ann, thank you for talking about IN THE WOODS…I’m always looking for new authors and based on your comments, I will buy this today at Borders.
    Hope all of you will consider Maryann McFadden if you haven’t read her before.
    Lindsay, thinking of you and hope things work out the way they should…keep your faith.

  15. Diane Chamberlain on August 19, 2009 at 9:42 am

    Do let us know if you like Let the Great Wolrd Spin, Ann . I’ve never heard of it. I finished In the Woods. I loved it, with one reservation that I’ll keep to myself so others can enjoy it. Haven’t decided what to read next. I’m really looking forward to Jacqueline Mitchard’s latest, but it’s not out yet.

  16. Margo on August 19, 2009 at 10:36 am

    Diane, what is J. Mitchard’s new one called??

  17. brenda on August 19, 2009 at 4:04 pm

    Love the book Margo is reading-one of my 2009 favorites…
    Another comment-I love love love mysteries-will look for that one…thanks.
    I too love the pictures.
    Back to work…summer sped by.

  18. Gina on August 19, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    Margo, I believe it’s called Never Say Goodbye. It’s a sequel to Deep End of the Ocean.
    There are several people that recommended Into the Woods to me too. And, now you guys are talking about it. I’ll have to download that one. Sounds interesting.

  19. Margo on August 20, 2009 at 8:28 am

    Thanks Gina…I didn’t know J Mitchard had a new book coming out till Diane mentioned it.
    After hearing comments by Diane and Ann about the mystery novel, I bought IN THE WOODS yesterday at Borders…looks very, very good.
    Brenda, you and I seem to enjoy alot of the same authors…I am really loving SO HAPPY TOGETHER. (-O:

  20. Ann on August 20, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    Margo, you are in for a treat – I really hated for In The Woods to end but there is a second book that has some of the same characters in it. The title is The Likeness. I have it but have not started reading it yet.

  21. brenda on August 20, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    Glad you do Margo-you know how much we love Elin HIldebrand…well this author is as fantastic-love that book…

  22. Denise on August 20, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    I loved The Likeness! Haven’t read In the Woods yet; I should have read it first.

  23. Margo on August 21, 2009 at 8:16 am

    Ann, after I picked up IN THE WOODS at Border’s I saw THE LIKENESS by the same author so I bought it too…you have me so intrigued that I plan on reading these as soon as I finish SO HAPPY TOGETHER.
    Denise, I’m so glad to hear THE LIKENESS is good…isn’t it great that we can all discuss these new authors on Diane’s blog site…I would never have known about some of these books if it had not been for all of you on this site.
    Brenda, I loved Elin Hilderbrand’s new book THE CASTAWAYS…I feel like I’m back in Nantucket everytime I read her novels.

  24. brenda on August 21, 2009 at 5:13 pm

    Am reading IN THE WOODS for the second time…read it when it first came out…I had forgotten that I read it until I started…will look for the next one also.

  25. brenda on September 6, 2009 at 5:07 pm

    Ended up reading both by French and loved both!!!
    Margo is right-we like the same type of books.

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