Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Can You Find The Three Story Essentials?

by PeggySue Wells @PeggySueWells

As writers we learn by studying the work of masters, considering the projects of artists ahead of us in the journey, and observing the ideas of creatives. In his inspiring book, Steal Like An Artist, Austin Kleon notes that pretty much all art is inspired by others. 

Compelling stories have three essential ingredients. In How To Create Characters Your Reader Cares About we identified these essentials as
  • A character the audience cares about
  • The character’s great and seemingly impossible-to-achieve need
  • An insurmountable obstacle between the character we care about and the great need the character must achieve
Let’s examine the stories of the top grossing films and find the three essentials the writers included.

#1 Gone With the Wind, 1939 (Adjusted for inflation)

Character we care about: Even though Scarlet O’Hara, to quote my daughter, “is a brat,” the audience cares about how the young, petulant, strong-willed Southern Belle will navigate (manipulate?) the rigid rules of society. 

Great need: Initially, Scarlet believes her great need is for Ashley Wilkes. Later, she is focused on preserving Tara, her family plantation. 

Obstacle: Between Scarlet and her need for Tara is society’s restrictions on women, the Civil War, and the harsh aftermath of the South’s defeat.

#2 Avengers Endgame, 2019

Characters we care about: The Avengers consists of Captain America, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor. Each of our superheroes has endearing qualities the audience relates to. 

Once the underdog, Captain America is a man out of time who longs to halt bullies, and missed his one chance at true love.

Genius, billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist, Iron Man feels like he never received his dad’s approval. Despite his money, intellect, and inventions, he worries he will be inadequate to protect those he loves, and save the world.

Thor has daddy issues. In his arrogance, he made an unwise choice that caused him to lose his father’s trust. At war with his brother, Thor’s family brings chaos to other planets.

Great need: Despite their weaknesses, flaws, and heartbreaks, the goal of the Avengers is to protect the Earth from invasion.

Obstacle: Between the Avengers and their goal are powerful out-of-this-world armies who want to own and control the planet. There is only one Earth, and in the battle for control between good and evil, only one side can prevail.

#3 Avatar, 2009

Character we care about: Jake Sully is a disabled former Marine who lost his brother. 

Great need: Sully takes an assignment to serve as an Avatar on Pandora in exchange for purpose, and the promise of having his ability to walk restored.

Obstacle: Native to Pandora, the Na’vi stand between the humans and the unobtanium mineral the humans want to mine from Pandora. After immersing with their culture, Jake empathizes with the Na’vi. When he falls in love with the daughter of the Na’vi leaders, he becomes an enemy to both sides, caught between two opposing people groups.

#4 Titanic 1977

Character we care about: In a loveless arrangement, beautiful and intelligent Rose is engaged to an older man as a pawn to resolve her family’s financial problems. Young Jack Dawson, is a poor artist who won a third-class ticket in a poker game.

Great need: Our main characters want the freedom to express their love for one another.

Obstacle: Initially, the star-struck lovers are separated by social class. Later they are separated by the sinking of the ship, and his death.

#5 Star Wars, The Force Awakens, 2015

Character we care about: In the ongoing saga, fans continue to care about courageous good guys Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Luke Skywalker. In this installment, we meet Rey, Kylo-Ren, Finn, and Poe.

Great Need: Our good guys fight for freedom from the oppressive, controlling, relationship-destroying dark side of the force. Rey needs to know who she is, how to use her power, and how she fits in her world.

Obstacle: Those controlled by the merciless dark side of the force are obsessed to take over the universe, and destroy or control everyone else. 

Your Turn

Consider these stories and list the three essentials in each.
  • The Martian 
  • Balto
  • Mary Poppins
  • Secretariat 
  • The Sound of Music
  • A Christmas Carol
  • Your current work in progress
Do your stories include a character we care about with a great and seemingly unachievable need? What worthy obstacle or enemy stands between your winsome character and the character’s must-have need?


Tropical island votary and history buff, PeggySue Wells parasails, skydives, snorkels, scuba dives, and has taken (but not passed) pilot training. Writing from the 100-Acre wood in Indiana, Wells is the bestselling author of twenty-eight books including The Slave Across the Street, Slavery in the Land of the Free, Bonding With Your Child Through Boundaries, Homeless for the Holidays, and Chasing Sunrise. Optimistic dream-driver, PeggySue is named for the Buddy Holly song with the great drumbeat. At school author visits, she teaches students the secrets to writing, and speaks at events and conferences. Connect with her at www.PeggySueWells.com, on Facebook at PeggySue Wells, and Twitter @PeggySueWells.


  1. Great post! Lots of good information in here.


  2. Thank you, Sarah, for stopping by. Every good wish with your writing!