“A story cannot be told about a protagonist who doesn’t want anything, who cannot make decisions, whose actions effect no change on any level.”

Robert McKee, STORY

Want makes us act

When I was struggling to turn my first memoir into a story that publishers would actually read, a friend asked me two relatively simple questions which set light-bulbs off in my head enough to send me back to my book in a frenzy of redrafting. I’d been working on the manuscript for over a year, but these two questions got me so clear on where the story needed fixing that a publisher commissioned it within months.

These two questions can help you clarify the driving desire that moves the story of your memoir forward, too.

These are the two driving desires behind every action that your protagonist (you) takes in the journey of your memoir.


In memoir, the central protagonist is always you, because it’s personal story.

Question Number 1: “What do you want?”

This question will help you clarify the conscious desire that drives your protagonist forward in the ‘quest’ of the book.

This is what spurs you to engage in the journey or quest or ‘goal’ that is central to the premise of the book and to driving forward the action of the plot.


You’ve got to want something, or there’s no story!

In A Letter From Paris, my conscious desire was to know my father. This drove forward the action of the plot.

Here’s the rub:

Many writers only clarify the conscious desire running through their memoir. They don’t dig deep enough to figure out the unconscious desire, and the unconscious desire is what will shape the conflict and the antagonism that will keep the reader (and potential publisher) turning pages and engaged enough with your conscious desire, to want to know how it ends.

Conflict makes the story. Your protagonist must have an unconscious force of antagonism working against the attainment of that conscious desire or nobody will want to keep reading! How boring is a book where the person gets what they want with no struggle at all?

The next question will help you clarify the unconscious (counter) desire. Put simply, this is what will make your struggle relatable, and keep the reader invested in the story.

Question Number 2: “What do you really want.”

This question should help you cut through the conscious veneer that runs through what we tell other people about our story. This is where you get to the juice stuff.

In other words, be honest enough with yourself, to admit the unconscious desire that has always prevented you from attaining your conscious desire (or goal).

I share some examples from bestselling memoirs in the free training below if you need more detail. And, of course, I teach the process in depth, and where and why you need to specifically sequence the revelation of these desires, in The Art of Memoir.

The problem with our unconscious desires is exactly that – it’s unconscious. Rooted in pain and secrecy, it’s often not until we’re midway through the draft (or the experience) going through a mess of emotions that we realise what we wanted was actually NOT that first thing!

My unconscious desire for A Letter From Paris, was to be future-orientated, progress in my life, avoid the pain of grief. By never looking into my dad’s story before, I was able to avoid the swamplands of grief and ‘living in the past’. But the paradox of the unconscious desire is that we can’t actually attain that desire until we acknowledge that we have it!
But it wasn’t until I saw the antagonism in my two desires, that the story reached a turning point. And knowing and seeing these two desires really clearly helped me to shape the story so that it continues to be compelling from the mid-point onwards.

You can do this with any story.
Let’s say your conscious desire is to fall in love, for example (you’re writing a relationship memoir).  Perhaps your unconscious desire is to avoid being ‘seen’ – because to be seen in all our warts and all wholeness is to risk rejection. Ironically, to meet someone and fall in love, we have to allow ourselves to be seen. So your story won’t ‘go anywhere’ until you see this unconscious desire and how it’s holding you back. And the first step to changing something is by seeing that it exists…


If you’re having trouble locating the unconscious desires (or inner antagonism) that will make up the conflict that will keep the reader engaged, ask yourself: what always stopped me from attaining my conscious desire?

You can’t write a good personal story if you refuse to dive below the surface of your motivations or refuse to examine your own shadow. It’s vulnerable work and it’s deep work. But it’s transformational, too.


These two questions should help you get to the heart of the action of your story. In each scene or chapter or act of your book, you’ll be moving towards your conscious desire, but coming up against different (often unexpected) reactions and responses from the outer (and your inner) world.

Conflict makes the story – and it’s this antagonism between our conscious and unconscious desires that is at the heart of the compelling universal stories and bestselling memoirs.


Write your memoir focus sentence
Three memoir journal prompts
What’s your story hook?