This Ice Cream Will Heal Your Heartbreak: How to Find Your Story’s ‘North Star’
Every story you’ve ever heard and remembered is about someone who wanted something. If the story wasn’t about an interesting character overcome by desire, you don’t remember it.
In my last post, I laid out a five-point story structure for live storytelling: You/Need/Go/Get/Return. I’m going to dive a bit more deeply into the You/Need part of that structure here.
But before we get too far, please remember that if someone in the arts tells you “this is absolutely how it works,” what they really mean is “This is how it worked for me.”
If you’re telling a story live onstage in front of an audience, the most interesting character in the story is automatically you. You could be telling a story about the time you interned for Batman, but the audience cares more about you and what you wanted — your voice is the one they can hear and your face is the one they can see.
We relate to the people that are right in front of us on a primal, subconscious level which is why politicians spend so much time going to state fairs and firehouse fundraisers in swing states.
Still, you’ve got to give people something to latch onto past your face and voice. It doesn’t have to be much, but it has to come from a definitive self-awareness and a deeper understanding of who you are in this story, and how the audience perceives you as you stand in front of them.
A live audience begins making assumptions about you based on what they can see as you walk across the stage to pick up a microphone. Everything that you say about yourself needs to confirm, deny, or modify what the room already thinks of you when you start speaking.
I’m 6’2”, 250 pounds (working on it, thanks), have a shaven head, a beard and typically wear a leather motorcycle jacket. This paints a definite picture. When I say
“My head has been the same size since the fifth grade and I could solve a Rubik’s cube faster than anyone in my class,”
it shows you who I was and maybe a little about who I am on the inside.
It’s also a lot more interesting than saying
“I was a nerd when I was a kid.”
The Rubik’s cube line may show that I was a nerd as a kid, and lead the audience to believe that I am currently overcompensating for that as an adult.
You don’t have to say much about yourself, really just a sentence or two — but it’s got to be the right sentences. Once you let us know how you handle conflict, who you wanted to please the most, why you thought a perfect GPA was so important, we got it from there, and that’s enough.
A wise sage by the name of Tom Waits once said
“The way you do anything is the way you do everything,”
and that definitely applies to live storytelling. Whatever you tell us about yourself is the lens through which we’ll view every choice you make in the story.
Once you show the audience who you are, you’ve got to show us what you need. The line between you and need can be a little blurred here, because every person is a complex collection of needs and desires. Sometimes saying what you wanted is enough. I know this is vague, but it’s very definitely the reason that most performers are kind of crazy.
The need part of the story is made up of two parts: external motivation and internal motivation. In other words: what did you want, and why did you want it?
All of Western storytelling is about developing desire and the quest to fulfill it. The Crusades, the Odyssey, Star Wars and Lady Bird are all about wanting something very, very badly and going after it.
The external motivation in a story is WHAT you wanted. It’s either a tangible thing — a trophy, a tub of ice cream, the Holy Grail — or an easily understood concept like a promotion, a date with your high school’s star quarterback, or the plans for the Death Star.
The internal motivation in a story is WHY you wanted what you wanted.
For sake of illustration, let’s use a hacky, outdated premise and say you want a date to the prom with the high school quarterback.
There are a LOT of possible reasons for this:
- as a teenager, you are highly susceptible to peer pressure and want what you think you’re supposed to want
- you grew up next door to the guy and watched him enter a social echelon that doesn’t include you and it really hurts
- your dad wants to do business with his dad and is loving but too pushy for the wrong reasons
- you’re a girl who is realizing that you’re attracted to girls and think that if you do the straightest thing ever people will stop whispering about you
- you’re a boy who is gay, out and proud, and want the closeted quarterback to stop hiding your relationship
- you have not yet learned that the high school prom is an initiation into the world of adult disappointment with inflated expectations
- you’re in your 40s and really can’t get over high school and it’s kind of sad
Being open and honest about your internal motivations — or at least acutely aware of them while telling your story — makes you tremendously relatable to people who may not have shared your external motivations. We’ve all felt adult disappointment, had something to hide or wanted a secret to stop being hidden or been pressured by our parents and friends. And we can all find our way into your story that way.
Your internal motivations are the North Star of your story, the thing that your ship is always navigating towards whether or not we can actually see the compass. You don’t necessarily need to say them out loud, or hit the points too heavily. But if you know what your inner motivations are and how they drove you, you can make decisions in your story that will lead you forward and your audience will gleefully follow.
The North Star of your story answers the silent, subconscious question every audience asks:
“Why didn’t you just go home?”
When the quarterback said “nah, I’m good,” why did you get hung up on it instead of just try somebody else?
This is also what’s known as the story’s stakes. Stakes is a word that is thrown around a lot by people with interesting glasses and everyone nods when they hear it — but it can mean a lot of different things. To me, a story’s STAKES are the combination of who you are, what you wanted, and why you wanted it
It can be really hard to come up with your internal motivation. I’ve come up with a little exercise to help dig it out that I call the SO THAT game.
All you do is grab a pen and paper, and across the top of the paper, write your story’s external motivation. Then, underneath it, write the phrase “SO THAT.”
Then, answer the “SO THAT” underneath it. Why did you want to get home with that pint of ice cream? If you make it home with it, what does that do for you?
In my case, I wanted to get home with a pint of ice cream SO THAT I could eat it alone, over a garbage can late at night.
Then write “SO THAT” underneath that.
Then answer that “SO THAT.” For me, I wanted to eat the ice cream over the garbage SO THAT I could experience a sense of numbing pleasure.
The pain of my sudden heartbreak would begin to recede a little.
I could feel some grace and patience from the world around me, and connect to human kindness.
You basically just keep writing “SO THAT” and the conclusions it leads you to until you either quit or go insane. The last or next-to-last “SO THAT” is usually your story’s North Star. This exercise is a lot harder than it looks, and it can be really helpful to do this with a trusted friend or writing partner that can keep pushing you past your comfort zone.
But once you figure out that North Star, you tie it to your external motivation and your own self-awareness and POW, you’ve got a relatable story with authentic human needs.
This is a story that I told at a Moth GrandSLAM a few years ago, featured on the Moth podcast. It’s the one that I based this “so that” exercise on, and hopefully this ties it all together for you.
It can be scary to be vulnerable and open like this — so few people do it, and a lot of performers use jokes as a kind of magic trick to distract you from their flaws. But here’s the big secret: Everyone’s lonely, everyone’s scared and we’re all trying to figure it out.
When we see someone else admit to the same flaws we perceive in ourselves, we love them for it, every time. It’s the foundation of human connection, and it’s pretty much the reason we exist.
In my next post, I’ll get into the GO/GET part of the five-point structure. Subscribe now if you wanna see that the second that it comes out.
I wrote some other stuff about storytelling that you may want to check out here:
How to Structure a Funny Story
This Is A Boring Shark Attack: 8 Rules for Fascinating Storytelling