Diamonds, piano, or chicken,
which will the space pirates pick?
What does your character want?
This is one of the number one things aspiring writers leave out of their manuscript. They tend not to tell the reader what the character wants. In particular, the reader needs to know: What is the character’s goal? What is his motive for his action? What are the stakes if he fails?
Why is this important?
If a character achieves a goal that the reader is unaware he desired, it means nothing to the reader.
If I don’t know what a character wants, I, the reader, can’t want it either. So I am not capable of caring about whether he gets it.
Even if I really, really want to care.
To illustrate this, imagine the following scenario: A damaged pirate ship captures a freighter. The freighter contains as cargo: a piano, a chicken, and a thousand diamonds.
Scenario 1) – The pirates arrive. They look around. They see the diamonds. They chuckle and hi- five each other. They go on to their next event.
Was that satisfying?
Scenario 2) – The pirates arrive.
“Look sharp,” said Jake. “Look for anything we can salvage. A chair. An old wine bottle. With our base gone and our ship damaged, if we can’t find enough for a little repair work…” He trails off.
“What’s it matter, Captain?” said Tuck, rubbing his stubble. “Even if we scrape together enough for a few repairs. We’ve lost the diamond mine. Without weapon-grade diamonds, we have no weapons. Without weapons, we’ll never break through the barricade.” The old pirate pulls his pocket watch from his tattered coat and rubs the initials on the tarnished silver cover. “Sorry, Ma.”
Swishing beside him, as beautiful as she was deadly, Shari threw the trail of her pink and yellow sari over one shoulder. In her thick accent, she murmured sweetly, “I am so sorry, Tuck. We worked so hard, for so many months, to gain the antidote…and now we will never be able to deliver it in time.”
Tuck glared at Dek, who was dawdling in the rear. “If the kid hadn’t burned out our final crystals on his infernal invention…”
Dek hung his head sheepishly, “Sorry, guys. How was I to know that we would lose the mine? The worse thing is….it actually works. I fixed it. We could be using it. Selling it…making millions. But now…when will we ever even have a chance to demonstrate it to somebody?”
“Lotta good it’ll do us now,” growled Tuck. His face fell, glum. “Lotta good it will do my mom.”
“Boys…” Shari’s jaw dropped. She jumped up and down rubbing her palms together in joy, “Look…”
Around the corner, next to an old piano and a chicken–shimmering like a dream–rose a huge pile of shining, glittering, weapon-grade diamonds.
Scenario 3) The pirates stumbled off the ship. They were scarecrow thin and haggard. They rushed around the freighter, searching, peering. One found a water spout and drank thirstily.
“Guys, diamonds!” called one pirate.
The rest of the crew stumbled into the room, too weary to care.
“Big deal,” said another sitting down on the piano bench. “We won’t live to make it back to market to sell it. We…”
He stopped. There was a noise. From around the corner of the diamonds shuffled a chicken.
“Food!” cried the pirate, leaping to his feet.
The pirates fell upon the chicken and dragged it back to their kitchen, feathers flying. One twisted off the bird’s foot and started gnawing on it, even before they reached the other ship.
With food, they would live long enough to make it back to civilization, where they could sell the diamonds and repair their ship.
They were saved.
Scenario 4) Kirth Gerson* stepped onto the freighter and looked around. The crew was dead. There was little to salvage. The cargo hold was filled with diamonds. His experienced eye glanced over them calculating their value—about as much as his magazine brought in during a single month of circulation.
He circled the diamonds. A chicken ran by him. He ignored it.
Then he saw it. Sitting in the corner.
His grandmother’s piano.
Slowly, Gerson walked across the room and ran his hand across its dusty but polished surface. It was exactly as he remembered it. He ran a finger along the scratch he had put in the side the day he crashed into it when pretending to be a space ship. How Grandpa had walloped him. He remembered Grandma playing at the keyboard, her face suffused with joy.
She had been playing when the Five Demon Princes descended upon Mt. Pleasant and slaughtered everyone.
Gerson touched the instrument once more. Then he turned and walked toward the bridge. Somewhere, there would be a record as to where the crew of the freighter had taken on the piano. He need only follow it backward and yet another clue as to the whereabouts of the remaining Demon Princes would be his.
As he strode purposefully, a ghost of a smile quirked at his grim lips. He was one step closer to his final revenge.
* Kirth Gerson – the hero of Jack Vance’s Demon Princes series. His home town of Mt. Pleasant was destroyed by five super criminals. He and his grandfather are the only survivors. His grandfather raises him with the sole purpose of hunting down the culprits and taking revenge. (If you have not read the series, run out and get it! It’s excellent. Though it does not include a scene with a piano, a chicken, and diamonds.)
When you write a scene, you want to clue your readers in so that when they reach the cargo bay, they know whether to cheer for the diamonds, the piano, or the chicken.
It’s that simple.
So, next time you sit down to write remember this and clue in the readers in such a way that when you finally reach the character's goal–when he seizes the diamonds (or the piano, or the chicken)– your reader will stand up and cheer.