March 21st, 2012

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Wishing Upon a Dream

I've posted a lot about The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler, which is one of my favorite writing books and the one that finally helped me learn to plot. I was good at coming up with characters and situations, but actually getting them to do things in a way that made for an interesting story was a real challenge before I read this book and started understanding how the structure works. I was in the library recently and saw that they had the latest edition, which is twice the size of the edition I have, so I checked it out to see what was different. There's a whole new section in the back that's mostly personal essays about these principles and how they've changed his perspective on writing and life since he first wrote the book. One that I found particularly interesting was on the power of wishing.

Vogler points out that in a lot of the old fairy tales, the character gets supernatural help by wishing. It may not be a verbalized wish, just a deep inner longing, but that still seems to be enough to summon the supernatural. And that wishing is actually a major part of storytelling. You get a more powerful, emotionally gripping story when the hero expresses or implies some strong desire -- or wish -- near the beginning. This may or may not even be related to the story goal, but it shows us that this person is somehow incomplete and needs something to change, even before the story kicks off.

Once I read that, I started thinking about how true that is. Look at just about every Disney musical ever made. The main character's introductory musical number usually has something to do with wishing or dreaming. We have Snow White's "I'm Wishing," Cinderella's "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes," Sleeping Beauty's "Once Upon a Dream," "When You Wish Upon a Star" from Pinocchio, the Little Mermaid's "Part of Your World," The Lion King's "I Just Can't Wait to Be King." All of these introduce the main character as someone who wants something she/he doesn't have yet -- a yearning. Sometimes it's more directly related to the story goal, like in The Lion King. Sometimes the story goal grows out of it. Ariel in The Little Mermaid sings "Part of Your World" after seeing the prince and deciding she wants him, but she already has a vast collection of human artifacts, so really the prince just becomes the concrete embodiment of a long-term wish. Sometimes it's just a general longing that then translates into a more specific story goal when that comes along, like Cinderella mostly just believing in dreams and wishes (and probably wanting her life to change somehow), and then that gets firmed up once she learns about the ball. And then sometimes it's more of a negative wish, not wanting something, just not wanting what she has, like Belle in Beauty and the Beast griping about the "poor provincial town" where she's treated like an oddball. She doesn't really know what she wants, just that she doesn't want that.

It's not just Disney. Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz wishes to go "Over the Rainbow." Luke Skywalker wants to get away from the farm to be a space pilot. Harry Potter wishes he had a real home and family instead of sleeping under the stairs and being practically a servant in his aunt and uncle's home.

I think part of the reason this is so powerful is that it makes us identify with these characters. We can relate to that sense of yearning. It also hooks us into the story even before the story goal comes up because right from the start we're hoping that these characters will get what they want. And it provides motivation once the story goal comes up. A totally content character is probably less likely to do something drastic unless his contentment is threatened. A character who feels some need for something to be different is more likely to take a chance and leap at the opportunity to do something a little crazy that might allow them to find what they've been wishing for. The Call to Adventure forces them to put action behind their wishes and dreams.

So, what is it that your characters desperately want before your story even begins?