The “I want” song and the operational theme

I recently encountered, in two very different contexts, the idea that near the beginning of most or all Disney animated musicals, the heroine sings an “I want” song, explaining to the audience what she wants.

In all my years of watching Disney movies, I had never noticed that.

Right around the same time, a friend linked to an article by Javier Grillo-Marxuach (one of the creators/writers of Lost) about what he calls operational themes. What I took away from that piece is the idea that a character who's strongly driven by one relatively simple desire or goal tends to be pretty compelling to audiences.

I've been hearing all my life that characters should have goals. But it had never really occurred to me before that even better than just having a goal is having a goal that the character feels so strongly about that it compels most or all of their actions; and it had never really occurred to me before that stating that goal relatively directly near the beginning can be a good way to get audiences involved.

Of course, Disney movies are primarily aimed at kids, and the Disney movies in question are musicals, where the songs can be a way for the characters to directly tell the audience what they're thinking. And Grillo-Marxuach is talking specifically about TV series.

So I'm not saying that your serious literary novel should start with the protagonist baldly narrating “Power and control are so important to me that I will go to any length and use any means necessary to obtain them.” And of course there are lots of exceptions; sometimes goals need to remain hidden, sometimes stories are about ennui and people who don't care about anything, sometimes there aren't any characters at all. And so on. So having characters with clear-cut driving goals is obviously not a Universal Magic Formula that improves all fiction.

But these ideas are getting to me think much more carefully about what my characters' most important goals are and whether I can make those goals relatively clear in my opening scenes.

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