“What is character but the determination of incident?” Henry James wrote. “What is incident but the illustration of character?” The desire need not be for something grand, but it does need to be intense enough to put a character into action. Take, for example, the father in Holly Beth Pratt’s “Nighttime Ride.” Here’s the opening paragraph:
The dad had a sweet tooth; it was something fierce. When it got ahold of him, no matter where he was—clearing invasives on the job, taking the kids for a weekend, eating his one-pan dinner—he had to satisfy it, like if he didn’t it would consume him inside out.
That’s an intense desire for something very small—a bit of candy—but it’s enough to dictate the course of events in the story to follow:
This happened one night when the kids were with him.
Now we’re in the land of a specific time, one that will be unlike any other, one that demands dramatization. We find out that the dad is separated from the mother, and she looks upon him with suspicion whenever he returns the kids to her after he’s had them: “He let you stay up late again, didn’t he?” The dad wants to be a good father, but he feels inept. He can’t get them to bed at the appropriate time. He has no books from which he can read them a story.
Then, there it was, a craving something fierce.
The craving for something sweet hits as he’s trying to get the kids to go to sleep, and he can’t ignore it. So he bundles the them into the car and heads off to the store. And just like that, the narrative begins to head toward the climactic moment beyond which nothing will be the same. All it took was a character with a craving—a small desire for something sweet—that ran up against a more important desire, a hope that he might be a good father, one who wouldn’t disappoint his kids.
We might say, then, that there are two desires at work in this story—one for something external (the candy), and one for something internal (a proof of goodness). The external desire creates the plot, or to use the language of Henry James, the incident. It’s the incident itself that comes to bear on the internal.
So you might begin a story by asking yourself what your main character can’t do without—a certain food, exercise, cigarettes, soap operas, music, etc.—and what he or she might do if denied it. Then think about something located in the character’s sense of self that’s extremely important to him or her—to be thought of as a good parent, to be thought of as reliable, or smart, or funny, or courageous, etc. Let the desire to satisfy the craving lead to a chain of events that tests the character’s sense of his or her identity. Bring the story to a moment where the craving that put the plot into motion causes the main character to face something within him or herself that they’ve submerged, perhaps intentionally or perhaps unconsciously:
Hemmed in by his children, the dad wished he could be where they were instead of where he found himself now. There’d been a lot of disappointment lately—he’d been a disappointment lately—and he’d had enough, though his was the type of life where there would always be more to come.
A craving for something small can put a character into action and, by so doing, create a chain of events that brings that character to a deeper understanding.