The Hierarchy of Needs

I’ve been working on a doorstop of a book called The Story Grid. It’s about long form storytelling from the editor’s point of view. It’s my answer to “what do you do…literally…step-by-step…from the moment you’re handed a manuscript to the moment you hand it back to the writer to revise.” As I’m nearing the finish line, I thought I’d share some of it. Let me know if you’d like to see more.

Why is understanding the concept of “need” such an important part of Storytelling?

It is because the most meaningful stories operate on two levels, the external and the internal, the conscious and the unconscious.  The external story is on the surface. External events are driven by outside forces. Personal outside forces (like a femme fatale) and extra-personal outside forces (like the LAPD).  Your lead protagonist’s external story moves backward or forward according to his moment to moment success pursuing his conscious object of desire, his “want.”  Perhaps he wants to find evidence that a woman’s husband is cheating on her simply to fill his bank account. But when he discovers that he’s been set up to take on a case revolving around a young girl in jeopardy, his want changes. That change moves the external story forward…he’s now ‘wanting’ something else and we the reader follow along with him as he chases it. He doesn’t know it, but his want has turned into a need.

Remember that we look to story to instruct us how to navigate the world.

But we don’t just live in one world, we live in two.  The external world (how we live among our fellow man pursuing what we want) and the internal world (how we find peace within ourselves by getting what we need) are the hemispheres of human experience.

Needs begin as those things a human being requires to negotiate the primal challenges of the external world.  But then need morphs and moves inward, to embody our longing for inner peace. Needs are genetically pre-wired and then socially learned and then mysterious.  These lists compel us first to take action in order just to survive. But then once we reach a level of physical security, we move on up the need ladder to unconsciously pursue a higher realm.

Jake Gittes in the movie Chinatown may consciously want to “find the girl” so that he can bring an end to a nightmare case, but he is also driven by his unconscious need to find the truth and secure justice. If you are writing a story, you must understand both the external want of your lead character and his internal need. If you don’t.  Your reader won’t either.

In his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” psychologist Abraham Maslow hypothesized that human beings have an innate step-by-step “hierarchy of needs.”  Like a to-do list, once a person checks off a primary need, it’s on to the next.  As you would expect, the hierarchy begins at the purely physical level (external) and ramps up to the metaphyscial (internal).  Maslow’s hierarchy is a pyramid that looks like this:

At the very bottom are the basic physiological requirements—air, food, water, sleep, sex, sleep, etc., just the existential bare bones. Once these needs have been met, the human then safeguards himself.  He gathers the materials and social tools necessary to maintain personal equilibrium. He finds  shelter, learns how to defend it and then reaches detente with other human beings. After the first two tiers, the necessities for physical survival have been met and the person begins to journey inward.  He requires intimacy, communication with and sharing experiences with others. And ultimately he needs to find a mate or family communion.

While this communal need is an internal one, the external world has a great deal of influence on the individual’s actions to get it.  That is, the seeker of intimacy learns how to best satisfy that need by watching and learning from the behavior of others. To find intimacy with another human being requires a person to conform to his surrounding social environment. The ways in which high school students in Los Angeles make friends and search for companions are far different from the ways in which Pashtun teenagers in Afghanistan do. It is the storyteller’s responsibility to understand the social milieu of his story. He has to make the appropriate choices for his characters that will fit or not fit within that chosen setting. Classic “fish out of water” stories like ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK play off of this need on many levels.

Your character’s actions to find love and intimacy lead to fulfilling (or not fulfilling) the next level of need, which is self-esteem, respect by others, confidence etc. This need represents an individual’s coming to an understanding of their place in their society, where they fit and why they are important. People who are loved and respected could be as diparate as a neurosurgeon or a civil servant who works at the department of motor vehicles. Both know where they stand in society.  Whether that brings them contentment is another question.

Once a person knows where he sits in the group he identifies with and feels secure in his belonging, he turns his attention to the top of Maslow’s pyramid—what Maslow calls Self-Actualization.  This is the terrain that Steve Pressfield talks about so wonderfully in his books THE WAR OF ART, TURNING PRO, DO THE WORK, THE WARRIOR ETHOS and THE AUTHENTIC SWING.  This is that place where you find yourself asking a lot of WHY questions.  Why am I here?  Why do I feel something lacking?  Why am I soft in the middle when the rest of my life is so hard?

We don’t know that we’re searching for something called “self-actualization,” we just find ourselves perplexed by the fact that we have every “need” checked off our list, but still we find ourselves lacking. No matter what we chase as a “want” to solve that emptiness, we’re left unsatisfied. What Steve calls Resistance is a force that pushes us away from the big questions. “Yes, something is telling me to quit my job and start an organic farm, but I don’t know anything about gardening and I’ve got bills I gotta pay…”  This kind of Resistance.  If you focus on the bills, the idea of self-actualization can be beaten into submission. It makes sense because to not focus on the bills puts your security in jeopardy.  Who wants to tumble down the pyramid only to find that they don’t have a green thumb?

Self-actualization is a place where humanity strives to leave our petty existences and commune with the greater forces. Whether you believe in God or quantum physics or no thing other than the reality of the inner chatter inside your head, we all suspect that there must be something fundamental in the universe that we just don’t have the capacity to understand.  Self-actualization is the way in which we contend with that great mystery.

So stories of depth and meaning are those that progress to this ultimate mystery, this ultimate need. The lead character may consciously desire a want, but it is his unconscious need for self-actualization that pushes him to the limits of human experience.

Have you ever been on a vacation, with nothing to do, and find yourself having trouble “filling the time?” You’ve worked hard to go on vacation, but once you’re there, you find it generally unsatisfying.  You worry about having to go back to work.  Maybe if you changed the kind of work that you do or who you work for, things will change?  But then you find that new job and discover that no, it wasn’t that at all.  What is it that will bring me peace, a little contentment?  Who am I? Why am I here?

If you want your story to land inside the tip of the Maslow’s pyramid, these are the questions that your protagonists should face too.  But remember, like their human counterparts, your fictional protagonists will distract themselves in innumerable ways from contending directly with them. They chase wants not needs. And in most instances, they will not consciously understand or reconcile the need to know themselves (who they really are) until the very end of the story.

Jake Gittes doesn’t know why he’s decided to put his life on the line to help Evelyn Mulwray and her sister escape the clutches of Noah Cross, but he does it anyway.  What’s remarkable is that we, as the viewer of the movie, never question why he makes that choice.  Because Robert Towne did such a materful job revealing Gittes’ deep character while he toils away toward his conscious object of desire—his wanting to find the girl—the audience is able to intuit his need. It’s a need we all have.

Gittes may not know why he put his life on the line, but we do.  Gittes needs to uncover the truth so that he can bring justice to the world.  Like the Cerberus hellhounds who guard the Underworld, the authentic Jack Gittes (the self-actualized Jake Gittes) is a sentry for justice. He does what we know our better selves would do in the same circumstances. He fights for what’s right.

The Story is so great that even when Gittes fails, we never question his decision to try. He didn’t get what he wanted (to save the world), but he got what he needed (a better understanding of the world).

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  1. Kent Faver on October 11, 2013 at 6:11 am

    Thanks Shawn – this really spoke to me. I’m 60 days away from the end of a 7 year journey of putting two kids through college – it filled up most of my why. Time to move up the ladder and find out what I’m missing.

    • Shawn Coyne on October 11, 2013 at 7:30 am

      Hi Kent,

      Here’s what I think re: what you’ve been missing.


      When we live outside of ourselves (like the way that you have been doing for the past seven years to benefit your children) we are actually unconsciously communing with the mystery. We are striving inside that pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy.

      Sorry if this is getting too woo-woo, but you are working “outside yourself,” helping your children to learn that overindulging ourselves just to serve our own “enlightenment” is…one of my favorite Jewish terms…a mitzvah. When we let our egos go to serve, we’re on the right track. And if serving our children, teaching them the importance of sacrifice and responsibility through action and not just talk, isn’t a process in self-actualization, I don’t know what is.

      I bet if you asked Eugene O’Neill’s children if they’d trade LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT for just one day at the beach and an ice cream cone with their dad, there’d be no Nobel Prize for that tormented genius. While the world would lose a masterpiece, it would gain in real sacrifice and love. And that stuff tends to move from one generation to the next.

      But you are right to think about where you should turn your attention after your kids are on their own. You already know that buying a new car and letting your freak flag fly ain’t gonna cut it. I have no doubt after a half a glass of warm beer as celebration, you’ll dive right back into the muck.


      • Kent Faver on October 11, 2013 at 8:13 am

        Thanks Shawn – maybe a full glass of beer! Toward the end of the What it takes Podcast you said something like — If you work yourself to the bone, you end up blaming others… and then gave some examples. That really resonated too, and I can now hear some of that in my first reply to you above. Thanks again.

  2. David Y.B. Kaufmann on October 11, 2013 at 6:54 am

    Well, first, yes, of course, obviously I’d like some more. Can’t wait for the book. Writers should sit on both sides of the editor’s desk. It’s a fascinating question.

    The difference between story and sermon (a term I dislike, because it’s pejorative, or should be) or self-help is that story let’s us discover and comes at the “why” questions obliquely. That’s the balancing act, isn’t it? Too little top-level narrative, and it’s a cotton-candy story, fluff for a moment. Too much top-level probing, and it becomes preachy, sermonesque.

    Thanks, Shawn!

  3. Mary on October 11, 2013 at 7:06 am

    This really spoke to me too – would love to see more, and look forward to the book. Thanks for sharing Shawn!

  4. adam pearson on October 11, 2013 at 7:21 am

    while maslow’s human needs hierarchy can be a useful metaphor, maslow himself conceded towards the end of his career that clare graves’ theory which developed into spiral dynamics ( was more accurate – critically, there are many stages of adult development, each more complex and open than the previous one, and “self-actualization” looks very different at each of them. maslow himself actually never used the term self-actualization, nor did he have a pyramid.

  5. Sue Trumpfheller on October 11, 2013 at 7:38 am

    It is interesting to read about the story development. I write non-fiction and realized as I read this that it is in my marketing that I address the needs. How does my book meet your needs is the big question as I write my sales piece? Looking at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs again will help me write both my books and my sales copy. Thanks for the reminder

  6. Joel D Canfield on October 11, 2013 at 7:47 am

    I read a lot about writing craft, read all Steve’s non-fiction, lots of Larry Brooks.

    This sounds like it’s one level up; beyond the esteem of being a good writer, to the self-actualization of BEING a good writer.

    This bit is super:

    “We don’t know that we’re searching for something called “self-actualization,” we just find ourselves perplexed by the fact that we have every “need” checked off our list, but still we find ourselves lacking.”

    (Also love the hidden Paul Simon quote; thanks for that.)

    When will your doorstop be available to all of us who have doors to, er, stop?

    • Shawn Coyne on October 11, 2013 at 8:29 am

      Hi Joel,

      Well, just as Steve leans on me when he’s got a stack full of manuscript and he’s unsure if he’s hit all of his marks, the plan is to dump it all on him middle of December.

      We’ll turn the tables, and he’ll edit this sucker. I know he ain’t gonna go easy on me. I never am with him.

      We’ll then toss it back and forth to each other for however long it takes to make it as clear and helpful as possible.

      My goal is to help writers get away from the idea of seeing themselves as the problem with their work…If I weren’t so lazy…If I’d only had a better vocabulary…that kind of thing.

      The way I think they can do that is to look at their work from the editor’s point of view. Editors don’t care whether a writer has “block” or has intimacy issues.

      Deep down, editors like writers, but what they really love are books, manuscripts,…problems.


      So THE STORY GRID is a method to teach writers how to find THE PROBLEMS in their manuscripts before they give up and blame themselves generically. If you can figure out what the problems are, then you can learn how to fix them. Once you learn how to fix them, you can move your book from the amateur level to the professional level.

      And once you’re writing at a professional level and are confident in the craft, whether or not the Big Five give you a big advance or whether or not your self published book is breaking out will not be as oppressive in your mind as those issues are now.

      The reason why is that you’ll be too busy planning your next book, problem solving your last book and pushing yourself to get better for your future books to be so obsessive about the one you wrote last year.

      I gotta tell you, once Steve and I put a book to bed, it’s really on to the next one. Like Kent’s kids, the book has finished college, it’s in the market, it’s on it’s own now. God bless it, but we’ve got more work to do. It will sink or swim on its own. It’s out of our hands.

      THE STORY GRID is a way to take your mind off of yourself and focus on the work. A typical Black Irish project.

      With all of that said, I think it will be ready for your purposes in like June, 2014. Like on sale in June. It’s going to be expensive to print, so we might need to open it up for pre-orders so we don’t go bankrupt. It would be fun to figure that out and give those hearty souls who do pre-order a lot of free bonuses and special access etc. to thank them for trusting that I know what I’m talking about.

      But don’t hold me to that. I’m sure there are a ton of problems in here that I haven’t figured out yet. Steve will give it to me straight and then we’ll figure out how to solve them.

      Thanks for your support, Joel. It’s great to have some compadres out there pulling for you. I’ll throw up some more stuff in the weeks and months ahead too for free.


  7. LPB on October 11, 2013 at 8:04 am


  8. Erik Dolson on October 11, 2013 at 8:35 am

    Set-up, response, attack, resolution; orphan, wanderer, warrior, martyr;
    our stories need to have structure (thank you, Larry Brooks). It’s more than beginning, middle, end. Something happens, and it has to mean something. Character arc within story arc. Good songs, good books, good movies have this in common.

    Perhaps, in the beginning it wasn’t the “Word,” but perception of cause and effect, and how to communicate that understanding. Good story telling has to do with how our mind perceives the world, the order it constantly seeks to impose.

  9. Tom Worth on October 11, 2013 at 8:58 am

    The dual track of a character fulfilling needs while pursuing wants sums it up perfectly. This insight is a prime example of what you’re great at: pointing out the stuff that enables writers to see and hit targets on purpose as opposed to taking countless shots in the dark until they eventually (hopefully) produce something that “mysteriously” works.

  10. Valorie Grace Hallinan on October 11, 2013 at 10:22 am

    This is an amazingly helpful post and so true, eloquently said. The conscious/unconscious dichotomy you talk about helps me better understand what I’m trying to do with a memoir I’ve been working on – helps be better understand my younger self. Thanks for this excellent post.

  11. Kevin Worthley on October 11, 2013 at 12:44 pm

    Yes, Shawn. More of this type of discussion would be welcomed. Your insights on this post helped me to define some of the motivations of the two opposing figures in a project I’m working on. Thank you.

  12. Jeff on October 11, 2013 at 12:49 pm

    Great post, Shawn. Please keep them coming! The Story Grid sounds spectacular. Can’t wait to read it.

    Thanks for everything that you share with us in these posts.

  13. Michael Dolan on October 11, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    Thanks so much for your ongoing blog, and “The Story Grid” sounds like such an invaluable book! I’m anticipating it’s “early” release!

    Here’s a little known WikiFact: After Robert Towne won the Best Screenplay Oscar for Chinatown, he went on to write hit after hit. After writing the script “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan,” he grew so dissatisfied with the production that he credited his dog for the writing. Well, “P.H. Vazak” became the first dog nominated for an Oscar, for screenwriting!

  14. JF Laliberte on October 12, 2013 at 4:47 am

    Brilliant teachings !

    I am already eager for summer 2014 !

  15. Steve Lovelace on October 13, 2013 at 6:53 am

    One of the problems of self-actualization is that you can never quite fill those lower needs. I don’t know about you, but I could always eat more and sleep more and make myself look more important. A lot of Resistance comes from this, like the force of gravity that keeps you from climbing the pyramid. The key is to find the inner strength to keep climbing. So even if you’re sleep deprived and worried about your job, you still get up an hour early to work on your writing.

  16. Stephen on October 14, 2013 at 4:38 am

    Thank you, this is great, and, of course I’d like to read/see more!

  17. Faith Watson on October 14, 2013 at 6:10 am

    Thank you, Shawn, for delivering this level of writing and guidance to my Inbox. Even your replies to comments are so helpful. And comforting. I mean that sincerely. It always amazes me how advice about writing and work is the same as advice about life and fulfillment… Keep going, keep learning, take care, make it count. I do, I do. But I fear am always working on on too many things. This morning, reading this, I think I understand more about why.

    That pyramid reminded me of chakras. Looking at it I instantly recognized my pattern through googly eyes: red purple blue red purple blue (guess I’ve nailed gold and teal pretty well). Actually, I’m not sure how I managed not to cry. I don’t wanna end up a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard.

    Maybe I am getting what I need though, and I’m not looking at things in the right blue light. Acceptance of facts. Lack of prejudice. No one can take away my creativity, morality, awareness… except my own self-doubts.

    Wow, there is much to be said for not attaching to an outcome that depends on outside forces.

    You really inspired me, today. Thank you.

  18. Jeremy Brown on October 14, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    This post alone helped me solve some problems with my current project; more would be welcomed and embraced. If I could pre-order now, I would.

  19. Justine on October 15, 2013 at 3:39 am

    Aaaaah, lets out deep sigh of satisfaction. Where have you been all my life?! Great post. What a way to be inspired during my mid morning stretch. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  20. Vinay on October 29, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    Dear Shawn,
    Thank you so much for this article.
    This article cleared a major block for me in trying to understand about what aspect of human nature should a story depict. Though I have known about the hierarchy of needs, I have never really thought about it in the context of a story.

    I am now armed with enough information and lot of clarity to find the missing pieces (the NEEDS of my characters) in the various story ideas that I have developed over the years.

    Also, I find an uncanny resemblance with the NEEDS of my characters across different stories that I had written in the past!

    Thanks again for this wonderful and an insightful article.

  21. jim on November 18, 2013 at 2:36 am

    monkey!!! scrotum

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