“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 that is central to the premise of the book.
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 antagonism. 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)
The problem with our unconscious desires is exactly that – they’re unconscious. Rooted in pain and secrecy, often we keep them hidden from ourselves!
My unconscious desire for A Letter From Paris, was the wish to be happy and avoid the pain of grief. Ignoring my dad and my personal history kept the pain away. But it wasn’t until I conquered the unconscious antagonism holding me back from the conscious desire (to know my dad) that the story reached a turning point (I’ll cover turning points in another post!). But knowing why I’d never looked into those boxes about my dad, helped me shape the story.
You can do this with any memoir genre or topic. Let’s say your conscious desire is to fall in love, for example (you’re writing a relationship memoir). OK so that’s all nice and happy, but perhaps your unconscious desire was 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. We have to be real. Ask yourself a few deep questions to get to the unconscious, or antagonistic desire that will shape your story.
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 chasing or attaining this dream/goal before?
You may need to journal on this for awhile, this is why i recommend a strong journaling practise before you attempt a book-length work. Memoir is deep-diving self-excavation. You can’t write a good memoir if you refuse to dive below the surface of your motivations or refuse to examine your own shadow.
TO SUM UP
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 most universal stories and bestselling memoirs.
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