The other night, I gave a guest lecture to a public relations class of working professionals. The students had lots of stories and even more questions, including one that stuck with me. A major l’esprit de l’escalier situation.
Too bad you can’t retrofit emotion.
A student was tinkering with a story about an engineer (protagonist) who worked on a tricky project (full of obstacles) in order to save his company money (objective). She was stumped because she had the first layer of parts to start but couldn’t pinpoint an emotion. The problem is when you can’t feel emotion in the first place, you’ll have a hell of a time retrofitting some into a story.
She asked what to do and I told her that sometimes there isn’t a story there but rather a good case study or profile. Of course an hour later, walking up the stairs of my house, I realized what I should’ve told her. The reason she was stuck was because that particular protagonist, objective, and obstacle combination didn’t align. She needed to swap one out…preferably the objective.
Don’t confuse your boss’s objectives with your own.
Saving the company money isn’t the engineer’s objective, it’s his boss’s. The engineer is fulfilling an assignment, which won’t fan a fire in his belly. Instead of telling the student she had no story, I should have told her she had two.
In a story starring the engineer, she could give him the objective of “impress the boss” or “solve an impossible puzzle” or “invent something groundbreaking,” etc. In this new scenario, saving money could be a byproduct (e.g., engineer makes amazing thing AND saves company a fortune) or an obstacle (e.g., engineer has limited resources yet still MacGyvers amazing thing).
In a story starring the boss, she could give her the objective of “corner the market” or “make a name for myself” or something else that would drive a boss to enlist an engineer to help her. Then the engineer would be a linchpin for the boss.
When writing for work, differentiate the employer’s hopes and dreams (or company mission) from those of the characters in the story. Here’s a little more on that confusing topic.
It’s not about the money.
No matter the protagonist, an objective about saving money will always be disappointing. The better option is to create an objective that is meaningful, make “and we saved a ton of dough” a byproduct, and then reinvest that wealth into something special (e.g., “and that’s how every employee got a puppy”) for the crescendo.
Photo: Kitty Joyner, electrical engineer, at Langley in 1952. Courtesy of NASA. Quote is made up but plausible.