Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Story Structure comes from the RCMP, the Canadian Rockies, and a Pickle

My daughter dances into the room. She never walks. Walking doesn't occur to her. She's 9--a true nine-year-old that loves imagination games, dress-up, and being nice to people.

Anyway, here she is, dancing all over the living room. She eyeballs me in a way that tells me she has something important to tell me.

"High five," she says, hand up over her head. "Down low," she lowers her hand down to her knees, palm facing me. "In the middle," hand at waist height.

Here comes the unexpected bit. Still at waist height, she arranges her hands so the tips of her index fingers meet. "Cut the pickle," She says.

I know this--I was there when she learned it--so there's a short pause while we smile conspiratorially at each other. We know what's coming.

I reach toward her makeshift pickle and slice through with a delicate karate chop.

My daughter, nearly hovering above the floor in joyous anticipation, doesn't wait for my hand to finish its chopping.

"Tickle, tickle!" And I have child's hands buried in my armpits. I laugh, even though it doesn't tickle. Nine-year-olds don't know the secret of a good tickle yet.

"I love that," she says.

"Do you remember who taught you that rhyme?" Her searching expression says she doesn't, even though I've told her before.

She throws herself down on to the sofa, arranging herself in that most primal of postures that says, Tell me the story. She's a good sport, so she ventures a guess. "You."



"You were three years old," I begin.

She snuggles in. It's not a long story but we both get comfortable. It's important to be comfortable when a story is present.

"We were in Banff," I continue. I tell her that it is a town in the mountains in Alberta, frowning a little because it's been too long since we've taken her there, and I realize she might have forgotten there are places where the earth rises to touch the clouds. "We were walking down Main Street, and Ben saw an RCMP officer all decked out in his reds."

For some reason, this delights my daughter. Perhaps it's the special feeling that comes from me not having to explain to her what "reds" are. She knows and the knowing makes her feel grown up, smart. Whatever the reason, she giggles.

I say, "He crouched down to talk to you and Ben, and I thought, he must be a dad." Only a dad would know to get right down like that.

"Did he ignore you and Daddy?" Maybe she remembers this story after all?

I nod, feigning indignation. Can you imagine a grown up ignoring other grown ups? I don't tell her that the Mountie, in the milli-seconds before he bent down, whispered, "Is it okay if I do a tickle game with them?" I doubt I'll ever tell them that part. Permission spoils the fantasy.

"And this is what he did," I tell my daughter. And we go through the motions. Up high, down low, in the middle, cut the pickle. . .

"The pickle," I tell her. "That's the bit that really got you."

A Royal Canadian Mounted Police, decked out in full reds, bent his knee on Banff's cobblestone streets to play Cut the Pickle tickle game with two small children.

And that's how story works, right? Larger than life character, in a breathtaking setting, does something heroic (or at least, endearing).


The bit that matters to storytellers isn't the Mountie, or Banff, or even my children, darling as they are.

It's the Cut the Pickle game.


High five. We know this. It's ubiquitous to our culture. Ah, the blessing of familiar, this is the same thing we've known and loved for years. We're charmed and we can't resist it.

Down low. Okay, cute. Put a little spin on the story we know so well. We can go there with you. It's different, but not so different as to be unbelievable.

In the middle. We trust you by now. You know what you're doing, and you are able to be creative with where the story goes. Fine. In the middle we go.

Cut the pickle. Whoa. Where did that come from? This feels strange--but intriguing, too. After all, you didn't change things up too much. You just rearranged things into a new perspective. It's different, but, because you didn't use anything else but the things organic to the story, we feel we can trust you. Still, why do we have this feeling like there's more to this? Okay. We will take a step closer in order to find out where this is going.

Tickle, tickle! Ahhh! Surprise! You got us to trust you, drew us close, then sealed the deal with an unexpected, but perfectly logical ender. We didn't see it coming, but now that it's happened, it's the only way you could have ended the game.


So now, I move from my spot on the sofa to the chair in front of my computer. The story I'm telling is big and hairy. I'm in over my head. Ready to quit.

Then I hear my dancing daughter sing, "Cut the pickle!"

Fingers on keyboard. Shoulders back. Start storytelling.

After all, it's nothing more than an elaborate game of Cut the Pickle.
Have you had an "ah-hah" moment of insight about story? We'd love to hear all about it!

*The picture above is for the heck of it. Please, do not attempt to find sense, common or otherwise, in the inclusion of the above picture.*


Susie Finkbeiner said...

I really love this story, Bonnie. And my kids love the new pickle game.

Last week I attended the STORY conference in Chicago (a creativity conference). Bob Goff was the first speaker. Bob is the guy who made a HUGE difference in Donald Miller's life. He is also the consulate to Uganda.

He shared a story about a little Ugandan boy who was terribly, terribly mutilated and left for dead as a human sacrifice to some god. Even now, as I think of this little boy, my heart breaks.

But this isn't his story.

His story is that he lived. And he is loved. The story is that, recently, Bob Goff tied balloons on his belt loops. He added more and more and more. So many, in fact, that the little boy floated just over the ground. Bob talked about the giggles that came from the little boy.

THAT is the story.

The hope, redemption, restoration, joy, beauty. That is the story.

A little boy who suffered so greatly being able to giggle; that is where story really is.

Marcia said...

Bonnie: Loved the peek into your personal life your post allowed us to take. Can hardly wait to play the pickle game with my grandchildren!

Susie: I was touched by the story of the little Uganda boy. Thanks for sharing it.

S. F. Foxfire said...

I think my favorite aspect of story is when your characters take you places, do things, want things, say things, that you never would have guessed would come from them at first. I love when the story is so organic, the seeds (characters) grows and germinate and develop by themselves, as if our typing--or penning--and brain work are the fertilizer and sunlight for them.

I saw this happen with my current WIP. One of my female characters was so tame and "ladylike" and snotty in the first book, but in the series' conclusion, she's so grown by war that she sneaks into the enemy camp to assassinate the officers. I was like, "WHOA!!! Where did THAT come from, Kat???"

That's what I love about the process, when the unexpected catches the AUTHOR by surprise. Story is meant to grow the characters and readers/writers both, and if it doesn't, something went wrong along the way.

Cynthia Ruchti said...

I so love the way your brain thinks!

Bonnie Grove said...

Susie: I need balloons. Also belt loops. ;)

Marcia: I know they will love it. Watch their little faces when you do the "cut the pickle" part. It's remarkable.

S.F.: Character development is the key, isn't it? There's no separating it from plot and structure. Great point!

Cynthia: Thank you! Most days I'm just grateful it thinks at all.

Jennifer Major said...

I've done a "ride-along" with a Mountie. Oh my WORD!! Have you ever taken a 90 degree turn at about 50 miles an hour? Sirens, lights and a crackling radio?!?!? Or gone through the drive-thru window in a police car? Believe me, those kids really want to get the order right!!

My ah-ha moment came when I was trying to figure out how I could take a woman who was traumatized by her abusive husband and then have her fall in love and marry again. So, I nearly killed the new husband and had the heroine nurse him back to health, all the while learning what was like to have complete control over a man. One wrong move and he cries out in pain, he can't even do up his own buttons. She has to fix his long hair on his pillow so it doesn't get caught and hurt him. He can't pull on his own boots, or even do up his belt. She falls asleep each night next to someone who needs mercy and slowly grows accustomed to being touched and held without fear. By the time he is healed, she is ready to fully be a wife. Her nightmares don't end, but she knows when she wakes up, her rescuer will be right there.

Cherry Odelberg said...

Bonnie, you are such a great story-teller.

Jennifer - wow, this part of the story is deep and moving.

Jennifer Major said...

Aw, thanks Cherry!