As I continue with the preliminaries for Beam Me Home, Scotty!: How Star Trek Can Help Us Make Sense of the Brain, PTSD, & Combat Trauma, let me turn to another recommendation that long-time literary editor and The Story Grid author, Shawn Coyne, makes concerning preparations for writing a story that works: figure out the object of the main character’s desire, i.e., what that character wants and what that character needs.
If a main character does not want anything, or if there are no obstacles to that character’s getting his/her wants, then there’s no story. When we ask “what happens next?”, we’re always asking “Did the character get what s/he was looking for?”
A character’s needs, however, may or may not be obvious (or frankly, even necessary). We know, for example, that James Bond wants to save the world, but at least in Fleming’s early novels, we’re not quite sure if he needs much else except the occasional gal and the occasional martini. In many, if not most, books, though, the main character usually does need something, something that, at story’s beginning, may even be unconscious to them.
We shrinks know something about unconscious desires. Shawn does too.
So for Beam Me Home, Scotty!, let me propose two sets of such want/need pairs, the ones that are making sense to me now. As we go on, this might change, so stay tuned!
Both Jane and Joe want relief: relief from all the symptoms of combat trauma that have been plaguing them off and on for years. Simple enough.
Similarly, we could then say that what they both need in order to get such relief is knowledge: knowledge—and the wisdom that goes with that knowledge—of what is necessary in order to achieve that relief.
In essence, these are also the wants and needs of any reader of the book who has experienced combat trauma. This is a non-fiction, Big Idea book, after all, and so a reader is hoping to gain something from reading it. One reads a book about one’s problems in order to experience relief, and one hopes that what one reads will provide knowledge that will promote that relief.
So far, so good.
Yet this is a story as well. We want to know, “So what happens to Jane and Joe?”
When we get into the story itself, we are going to find out that the one who most wishes relief now is Jane (or best, who is most willing to do what it might take to get that relief.) At this inner-story level, Jane discovers (as, I will claim, all who seek to get better from War discover) that she gets her want and her need backwards.
For another way of saying she wants “relief” is to say that she wants everything to go back to the way it was so that she can experience relief.
Fair enough. But what “knowledge” must she obtain?
She must experience the connections in her lives that make and have made all the difference so that she can make everything go forward in a new way.
Her knowledge, in other words, cannot just be the knowledge of the head. It must be the knowledge first of the heart and soul. Only then will the head be able to figure out what to do.
That is how Jane will ultimately come to know the theme of the book, which again is:
Until, and even in spite of, Death, Love conquers all it can.
For think of it this way: how can Jane really know that Love conquers all it can until, at least in some small way, she experiences Love trying to do just that?
And that brings us back to Genre. See you next time.