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.*