I went to see Into the Woods the day after Christmas. I love that musical to the moon and back, and I’m still just a little bitter that I wasn’t cast in it that one time in college. Granted I wasn’t actually enrolled at the time, but still!
Anyway. The hubby and I were driving home and he commented that Into the Woods was a perfect example of what I was talking about in my blog post about The Rest of the Story. Ain’t that the truth. The brilliance of that musical (in addition to the incredible music and lyrics) is that Act I tells the fairy tales so well. They are wrapped up in their neat happily ever afters, and then in the stage production, act II starts with “Once Upon a Time…Later,” and proceeds to tell the story of what happens AFTER the happily ever after. Because once you get what you wish, there will always be another wish to take its place.
The baker and his wife have a child, but they want a bigger house. Jack has riches but wants to return to the kingdom in the sky. Cinderella is a princess but wants to sponsor a festival. *Though, if you’ve only seen the movie, I suppose you will have missed that bit.*
Contentment isn’t something that humans do well. We’ve trained ourselves to want the next best thing, to keep on reaching farther and higher. That’s not a bad thing (though it can be), but it makes the idea of happily ever after seem more than a little ridiculous. As the princes query in their song, Agony, “What’s as intriguing, or half so fatiguing, as what’s out of reach?” We always want what we can have.
We all want something. Characters always want something, which is a good thing to keep in mind. For each scene that we write, we need to know what it is that our characters are trying to accomplish. What’s the goal in each scene? What are our characters’ wishes for the entire book? For the beginning, middle, end and every scene within? Our characters’ desires are what will propel the plot forward.
Not only do we have constant changing goals and desires, but our lives are filled with opposites, which means they’re filled with opposition. It’s not just that the characters in Into the Woods want more. In life, there will always be some other person who wants the opposite of what we want, someone and something that will knock us off balance, just as soon as we feel we’ve figured something out. A giant will terrorize the village, a spouse will go astray, a reversed curse will rob the witch of her magical powers, a grandmother will die, or the path through the woods will be lost.
And then what? That, my friends, is the right question.