Remember that book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten? Well, when it comes to story, it’s just not true. We learn the fundamentals of story way before that.
In fact, cognitive scientists believe our first foray into narrative began long before we had the language to express, well, anything. Usually back when we were wee babes and it first dawned on us that when we get hungry, if we cry real loud that nice lady with the kind eyes will bring us some warm milk.
In other words, we wanted something real bad, and figured out how to get it.
Desire drives destiny. It also drives story. Whose desire? The protagonist’s.
Like, for instance, that bear we were talking about last time. The one who wants his hat. We know exactly what he desires. And that’s good. But is that enough to make it a story? To instantly yank us in?
No, that alone won’t do it.
I Want My Hat is not a story.
I Want My Hat Back is a story.
Why? Because it implies conflict. The problem is that a story called “I Want My Hat” – which, after all, does tell us what the protagonist wants -- might just list reasons why the bear wants his hat. Do we care about that? No, we do not. We don’t know this bear, so why should we care what he does and doesn’t want? We have much more pressing things to think about. Like what we want and don’t want.
And one of the things we want is a story that solves a problem. One that not only answers a question, but – and here’s the crucial thing – a question that we’re actually aware of.
I Want My Hat Back clearly falls into this camp. This bear isn’t going to write a paean to his lovely, luscious chapeau. Nope. How do we know? That one simple, plain, beautiful word that speaks volumes: Back. Forget the damn hat, it suggests, this is a tale of adventure, intrigue and it’ll answer the question: just how far will this bear go to get his hat back?
That is what the story is really about. In other words, it’s not about whether he gets his hat back or not. That’s just the plot. The story is about what the bear has to go through – and learn – in order to solve his problem.
Which brings us to a lesson that’s hidden in plain sight. It is indeed something we learned back in kindergarten, from books just like I Want My Hat Back, but it’s something that’s shockingly easy to overlook when we write stories of our own. To wit: it’s the very concreteness of the protagonist’s desire that allows us to delve into decidedly deeper matters.
The protagonist’s desire must be clear and concrete, as in: When you close your eyes you can actually see it? Not metaphorically. But in the “Look, it’s a hat!” sense. This is the foundation that gives you access to areas that aren’t so concrete. Like what it is about the bear’s worldview that keeps him from finding his hat. And what he has to master – that is, face inside himself – to actually get it back.
How? That’s exactly what we’ll be talking about in the next installment of the bear’s odyssey, in which we examine the bear’s deeper (and perhaps darker) nature.
Now, what about you? Is there a book you remember from childhood that still resonates with you? How did it do it? Looking back, is there anything about story that it taught you? We’re dying to know!