Every story is about one thing. Desire.
All human beings desire something. All stories are about someone wanting something and their quest to obtain that object they seek.
I call this object the Grail. After that cup the Knights in King Arthur legends sought. Because it symbolizes the very thing that all stories are really about. We are all creatures of want. From the moment we are born we want something. We scream for it. Whether it be air, water, mother’s milk, food, sex, peace of mind, money, love, happiness…every story is about a character trying to get something, or keep it from other people.
The Hero and the Villain of your story have conflicting motives when it comes to the Grail.
The Grail is whatever the hero thinks will restore balance to his life. There may be a visible grail in the story. A material object. But the Grail can be something intangible like friendship or trust.
All stories are about A>B<C. The Hero (A) wants C (the Grail) and B (the Villain/Conflict) stands in the way. In almost every case, the Grail can be summed up as that which restores balance. This is because all stories begin with the hero’s life being upset by some event. The hero then sets out to restore balance to his life. The grail is his means of achieving that balance.
Once you understand this simple concept it becomes a lot easier to understand how to construct your story.
Action, Crime, and Suspense stories usually employ a physical Grail. Examples are a piece of microfilm, a suitcase full of cash, a nuclear bomb, plans to a new secret weapon, or incriminating documents. Writers call this kind of grail “MacGuffins”. Sometimes the Hero is already in possession of the MacGuffin, but doesn’t know how to use it. So the Grail in such stories is knowledge. Knowledge restores the balance.
Romance stories have an obvious Grail: love. The Villain is either a rival lover, parents, society, or nature, threatening to keep the lovers apart.
Sometimes the Grail is a person or a living creature. The Grail in Jaws was the shark, doubling as Villain and Grail. In cop movies the Grail is the capture or death of the criminal (Villain). In some stories, the object is the rescue or capture of a person who only serves as the Grail and not as an Villain. Charles Bronson did a movie called Breakout, where the Grail was a man in a Mexican prison that Bronson was supposed to “break out”.
Most writers view Grails as physical objects of desire. But since all stories are about someone trying to get something, or not get something as the case may be (refusal is an action), we can define any object of desire as a Grail. It doesn’t have to be a material thing.
When you set down to create a story and are stuck for where to begin. It’s not a bad idea to think about what the Grail might be. That makes it easier to then formulate the motivations of the Villain and the Hero. Once you have those things figured out, everything starts falling into place.
It’s often the case in a story that the main character is conflicted. Their desire to win the grail may be against their own better judgement. They may unconciously want to fail. More often than not, the unconscious desire is radically different than their conscious desire.
When unconscious desire is employed, it can add a lot of dimension to the work. The object of the unconscious desire becomes the true grail in the story and all the hero’s conscious desires are ephemeral.
The true grail in these scenarios becomes the “Super objective”. No other MacGuffin or Grail really matters when you’re dealing with an unconscious desire, because the U.D. is what the story is about.
When you’re dealing with a super objective, the conscious desire is a front. A ruse, even. Sometimes the false grail is to establish that the Hero has sold out his personal values for what he perceives to be a higher purpose. But the story teaches him that his “heart’s desire” is more important than what he’s been fighting for. During the Crisis, he realizes what his heart’s desire truly is after a series of events makes it clear to him, and this is when he makes his choice.
This desire is usually at odds with the interests of other protagonists in the story, but as far as the premise is concerned, choosing to follow it is the right thing for him to do in this story.
REMEMBER: The unconscious desire is the only desire that matters when it’s used.