The role of needs in plot construction
from Your Writing Coach by Jurgen Wolff
A common observation about plot is that it’s the story of someone who wants or needs something and his or her quest to get it. That’s a useful oversimplification that probably applies to the majority of plots. We humans are creatures who want a lot of things. In a 1943 paper, Abraham Maslow proposed a theory of psychology that stated we are all motivated by a hierarchy of needs. In ascending order, they are physiological needs (breathing, water, food, sleeping, eating, etc.); safety (physical safety, but also security that we can provide for ourselves and those we care about); love and belonging (friendship, sexual intimacy, family); status (self-respect, respect from others, recognition); and self-actualization (creativity, morality, spirituality). His notion was that we need to have the lower aspects taken care of before we can move up and concern ourselves with the higher ones. In other words, if you don’t have enough food, you’re probably not going to worry too much about fulfilling your creativity. Of course, there can be lots of overlap and interaction between these categories. For a writer they are a useful guide to the universal themes that interest readers.
Tales that concern needs lower on the scale will be the most emotionally appealing. That’s why so many books and films are about a life and death struggle — it doesn’t get any more basic than that. One of the reasons for the success of the film Titanic is that it put its characters in a situation where they are fighting for the entire range of needs, taking them from the top of the scale all the way down. The character of Jack is a budding creative artist, so that’s the self-actualization element; he’s a lower-class boy who wants to be considered good enough to marry an upper-class girl (status); he’s trying to win Rose’s heart (love); when the ship starts to go down, he tries to save her and himself (security); and when they hit the water it’s a struggle for life itself (physiological). As we identify with the characters, emotionally we are led step by step backward to more and more basic struggles. The end of the film takes us back to the level of self-actualization when Rose chooses the purity of love over material things (the jewel she throws into the water).
You can select a premise that relates to any of Maslow’s levels and if you tell the tale well, you will find an audience. However, it’s no accident that many of the most successful films are action adventure or horror stories in which characters with whom we can identify are dragged down to the level of having to struggle to fulfil the most primitive and essential needs. Even the most spiritual or intellectual individuals probably still have a great fear somewhere in their brain that they will have to confront these basic needs, and watching how others cope with this is cathartic.