Updated: May 30
Last week I sat my seven-year-old daughter down to listen to a Ted Talk by a Pixar writer on the power of story. She loved the clips from the films but she understood too. As she listened she began to understand character motivation. How instrumental it is in storytelling because a character must develop through their journey. In Toy Story, Woody had to deal with his jealousy. The insecurity that rose up in him when he was no longer the top toy. At the end of the film, Woody completed his journey because he had learnt to put others' needs before his own. Of course, the surrendering of power is only possible or constructive for those who start from a privileged position, but that’s a matter for another day. What my daughter learnt was how to build a character, unravel them, then put them back together again stronger and better than before. It got me thinking, how would we develop our own stories?
So often we are focused on goals and paving our way to our dreams. Yet, you listen to any successful person speak of their lives and they’ll tell you that that moment where their dreams came true - when they won the oscar or became the heavyweight champion or climbed the FTSE 100 - the moment was a blur. The next day they woke up and they were still the same person and there was still much of life to live. More to do. It is not in our nature, as human beings, to achieve and then close the book. Because our lives are not the kind of stories that end when our deepest desires are met. Perhaps then we need a whole series of books.
Imagine that volume one begins today. Forget five-year plans and ideas of awards, job titles and ideal dress sizes because they lack the depth of story. Imagine your life as a story and this first volume will end when you have become a fuller richer person than you consider yourself to be now. And yes I mean rich in the spiritual sense, not the financial sense.
You’re on chapter one now. The book begins from where you are now. Who is your character? What are they battling with? What foundation are they built from? What sustains them? Where do they need to be at the end of this volume? Not in terms of material achievement but I terms of what they might come to know. It’s ok if you don’t know that yet. Many stories are approached without an ending in mind.
Choosing to see your life as a story means accepting struggles and influences that may deter you from your path. Such elements are as prevalent in life as they are in story. And essential too. But here is where the magic lies - because if your life is a story then you are the hero. You come armed with or acquire weapons along the way. They may not come in the guise of swords or wands but in strategies, convictions and values. You are the master of your story and you can chose which characters you take along with you on the journey. They need not be perfect because perfect characters make for dull narratives but they must all play an essential role and have their own plots too. These are the characters our hero will learn from and grow with. Those in the inner circle will add to the poignant scenes and provide alternative perspectives.
Ok, so the story method may seem somewhat narcissistic. Perhaps it’s the writer in me but personally I find far more beauty in stories than goals. It’s not only that the storytelling language of twists and turns, quests, revellations, battles, overcoming and conflict are more romantisised than their real world alternatives - milestones, obstacles, barriers, goals and plans. It’s that stories celebrate the journey. They make time for conflict. They recognise that such struggles are integral to our hero’s growth. The way in which our protagonists navigate their way out of those ‘all is lost’ plot points is what makes their triumphs worthwhile.
If we were to stop making plans and start setting out plots, not for the next year or the next five years but for each and every day would that not add a little much needed magic to all of our lives? And if we recognised that all those around us are writing their own stories too then might we even be a little kinder to each other and a little more in awe of one another’s adventures?
I’d like to think so. But then again I’m just a grown up version of a little girl who walked into every wardrobe in every house she ever visited, hoping to find Narnia.