This next question is a really important one, and sometimes it’s hard to wrap your head around it. I’m trying to phrase this question in a few different ways, and we’ll talk a little bit more about why this question matters and how you can approach it. The question is, what’s wrong with the protagonist’s personal world—or another way to phrase it, what is the disruption? When you think about that, it might seem difficult to identify, but here are some ways that you can dig deeper and answer that question in a way that’s really going to give your scene the tone or the vibe that you’re going for. If the protagonist can keep doing what they’re doing, then you don’t really have a scene or a story. That gets back to this idea of shoe leather. If there’s no obstacle, if there’s no resistance in the scene, then it’s not really a scene. There must be some type of conflict that a character must overcome at any level, and it doesn’t have to be dramatic conflict, as we’ll talk about. If there’s no resistance and a character can move through a scene without any obstacles, it’s not really a scene. It’s a sequence of story bits, and it’s not interesting, and I can guarantee you it’s something a reader will immediately disengage from or put down.
Something must force the protagonist out of their routine or their normal. Think about if the protagonist can’t keep doing what they’re doing, what single specific event or beat within your scene forces that? What’s forcing that character out of the “normal situation?” Another way to think about this question of what’s wrong with the protagonist’s personal world or what is the disruption, is what is the “bigger problem” represented by the one in this scene? This can really come into play when you’re doing things like genre fiction, for example, sci-fi or dystopian. If there’s a major problem with the world, that can be manifested all the way down to the scene level and come out through the character’s actions. It’s good to be thinking about that. But even in a contemporary setting, the bigger problem being represented in the scene could be a social justice issue or it could be a problem that we face in our modern world, and that also can infuse itself down into the scene level. Don’t discount that problem because it seems like it’s bigger than the scene. It can really help.
If you’re really struggling about what’s wrong with the protagonist’s personal world and what the problem is or what the disruption is, you can go back to Abe Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If you don’t know too much about it, don’t worry. I’m going to give you a quick summary.
Maslow identified five basic needs that all humans have, and he believed that we had to start at our most base needs and satisfy those before we satisfied any of the ones above it. You have your physiological needs. These are things like sleep, food, hunger, sex—the things that biologically we have to keep doing. Once you satisfy those needs, then we have a need for safety. We want to be protected, protect ourselves, and the ones we care about from harm, shelter, from the elements. These would all be needs regarding safety. If you satisfy that level of need, then you have a need for love and belonging. You want companionship. You want friends. You want lovers. You want to be part of something. If you satisfy that level of need, you move to esteem. And esteem is where you feel good about yourself. You feel as though you have a purpose, you have a function, and if you satisfy that need, you hit the highest level of according to Maslow, which is self-actualization. This is realizing that there’s going to be existence beyond you, that you serve a greater purpose, that you’ll have a legacy. If you’re starving to death, you’re not really caring too much about your self-actualized needs. And that was Maslow’s theory.
So if you take that on just a very basic level, you can think about those things as far as what is wrong with the protagonist’s personal world or what is the disruption. Is there a problem with the character’s physiological needs, their safety needs, their love and belonging needs, esteem, self-actualization? You can drill down on one of Maslow’s levels and use that as a way to get into the disruption or what is wrong with your protagonist’s personal world.