What It Takes

What It Takes

Nonfiction Objects of Desire

By Shawn Coyne | Published: September 1, 2017

We all know that fiction requires objects of desire for the protagonist and the antagonist. 

What about nonfiction? 

Are there objects of desire at play in a Big Idea nonfiction work? 

If so…what are they? 

And how can we clearly think about these wants and needs before we structure our work? 

Below is the next post in my continuing series about Big Idea nonfiction using Malcolm Gladwell’s masterwork The Tipping Point as my case study. Just to remind everyone, this is an edited version of something I wrote over at www.storygrid.com a while back.

We’re moving down our Foolscap Global Story Grid for The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell and we’ve reached Objects of Desire.

Which reminds me of that great line from Bob Dylan in “Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again:”

Your Debutante knows what you need, but I know what you want.

Gladwell also knows what we need, but he’s wise to give us want we want first. Guess which object of desire hooks our interest and which one lies underneath?

Before I answer that, let’s take a step back and review exactly what these objects of desire are in a story and why they are so important. Here is a post dedicated entirely to objects of desire and their importance to global Storytelling.

Here’s the bottom line that I’ve cribbed from that earlier post:

A protagonist or multi-protagonists go on a mission at the beginning and by Story’s end, after overcoming or not overcoming forces of antagonism (inner, personal or extra-personal conflicts), he or they are irrevocably changed.

But don’t forget though that something must happen at the very beginning of the Story—an event that throws the lead character’s life out of balance—the inciting incident.

Either a good thing happens or a bad thing happens. The event can be a random coincidence [aliens attack] or a causal occurrence [your lead character’s wife leaves him]. A positive change or a negative change in the life of the character unsettles his world and requires that the character do something to get back to “normal.”

Let’s see if The Tipping Point abides this must have Storytelling structure. [Archplot and Miniplot necessities]

So first things first, a Story requires at least one protagonist. So who is/are the protagonist/s in The Tipping Point?

With his courageous use of point of view (shifting from third person omniscient to first person and then second person after establishing his inciting incidents in his introduction) Gladwell sets himself up as the protagonist of the story. And his direct address of the reader invites him/her to join him on his quest too.

So the protagonists of The Tipping Point are Gladwell and his readers.

What happens at the beginning of The Tipping Point that throws Gladwell and his readers’ lives out of balance? What is the inciting incident/s?

What happens is that Hush Puppies, a brand that had been all but dead in 1994 (30,000 sold), became wildly popular in 1995 (430,000 sold)…seemingly instantly. The shoes went from cheesy to cool overnight.

At virtually the same time, New York City Crime plummeted from 2,154 murders and 626,182 serious crimes in 1992 to 770 murders and 355,893 serious crimes in 1997.

Seriously? How did that happen? Somehow a dead product goes through the roof? And crime in what most people envision as the most dangerous city in the world nosedives? Are these things connected? How is that remotely possible?

So two POSITIVE changes in the world (a product becomes wildly popular and crime falls) throw the protagonists (Gladwell and his readers) out of whack. Why and how did these things happen?

So far so good. We have two inciting incidents that upset the lives of the protagonists of the Story. These events give rise to an object of desire in the protagonists…they want something.  They want to know why and how these events happened.

Can we delineate the conscious want of The Tipping Point more specifically?

Remember that to figure out the want, we need to look at the external genre at play. That will define the want. In a crime story, the want is identifying and bringing the criminal to justice. In an action adventure story, the want is the prize at the end of the journey.. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy wants to go home…the scarecrow wants a brain, the tin man wants a heart and the lion wants courage.  Those are their conscious wants.

And as you’ll recall, Gladwell describes his work as an intellectual adventure story, and like any journalist, he spells out exactly what the object of desire is for the reader and for himself. That old nonfiction saw “Tell them what you’re going to tell them… Tell them…and then Tell them what you told them” is all about concretely addressing the wants of the audience.

Gladwell lays it on the line in the last three sentences of the Introduction.

The point of all of this is to answer two simple questions that lie at the heart of what we would all like to accomplish as educators, parents, marketers, business people, and policymakers. Why is it that some ideas or behaviors or products start epidemics and others don’t? And what can we do to deliberately start and control positive epidemics of our own?

So the want for Gladwell and the reader is to figure out how to “Tip” things ourselves…we want a “Tipping” formula. The magic fairy dust that will make our product “go viral” and make us rich. This mission, to find the formula, is the on the surface external driving force of the action adventure story in the book. It’s the want.

What about the need of the protagonists in The Tipping Point? Is there one of those?

Remember that the subconscious object of desire is what defines a need. And that the internal genre is the arena of the subconscious.

Scrolling up to the top of our Foolscap page, we’re reminded that the internal genre for The Tipping Point is Worldview Revelation. And that the value progression of Worldview Revelation moves from “Stupidity perceived as intelligence” in its most negative form to “Stupidity (incapable of understanding)” to “Ignorance (capable of understanding but not having enough information to do so)” to “Wisdom.”

Foolscap Story Grid for The Tipping Point

Foolscap Story Grid for The Tipping Point

So while the protagonist/s of The Tipping Point set off on their external “on the surface” mission to find the magic Tipping Point formula, internally there is something else at play too. It’s a “beneath the surface” progression, a subconscious journey.

That pursuit is the search for universal/holistic truth. That’s what we really need.

I contend that Gladwell is well aware of both the desire of the reader (and himself) to get what they want out of the intellectual adventure story, the means “to deliberately start and control” tipping points.

But I also believe that Gladwell understands that it is more important for him to deliver what the reader (and himself) needs too.

The clue for me to his understanding is in the phrase he uses to follow the expression of the active wanting to “deliberately start and control.” That phrase is “positive epidemics.”  You’ll notice that he doesn’t specify the type of epidemic that tips in the sentence before…

The reason he does this is that Gladwell is planting the seed in this last sentence of his introduction that he’s going to pay off this book in a big way…

The Tipping Point isn’t just about how Hush Puppies became overnight bestsellers or of how behavioral shifts in New York practically dramatically reduced crime.

There is darkness ahead. What goes unsaid in the introduction is that if we are able to deliberately start and control positive epidemics, we’ll be just as capable of unleashing negative ones too.

This is the need of the book.  We need to know the dark side of The Tipping Point.

For didn’t The National Socialist German Worker’s Party tip? What about Social Darwinism? That tipped too, right? How about Segregation?

But telling us up front about the flip side of positive social epidemics when we’re so keen to learn the secret formula to getting rich would kill his book’s narrative drive. Gladwell understood that going to the negation of the negation of his story in the introduction would be a huge mistake. He has to hook us before he can change us.

Gladwell knows what we need, but he’s going to give us what we want first.  That is a master storytelling.  Hook ’em with a compelling inciting incident and surprise them later on with an inevitable truth.

So on our Foolscap page, let’s fill in the object of desire of The Tipping Point thusly:

Objects of Desire: Wants a Tipping Point Formula, Needs the global truth about the phenomenon.

Posted in What It Takes

5 Responses to “Nonfiction Objects of Desire”

  1. September 1, 2017 at 10:41 am

    This article is useful to me because it addresses a need and a want for me.
    Through my nonfiction writing I want to be acknowledged as an academic in my field. But I need to show that human connection is crucial to every endeavour. This knowledge of how to respect both want and need (which is always layered) is helpful because it energises me to keep thinking beyond getting published in academia and pulls me back to my authentic self. It lights the spark again of personal meaning.

    • September 1, 2017 at 10:56 am

      For me the most exciting nonfiction book I ever read was “Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time is a best-selling book by Dava Sobel about John Harrison, an 18th-century clockmaker who created the first clock (chronometer) sufficiently accurate to be used to determine longitude at sea—an important development in navigation.” (Wikipedia)
      The story clearly had a problem to be solved and an unexpected, untrained hero. It was a David and Goliath story.

  2. September 1, 2017 at 11:55 am

    Shawn, Thank you for simplifying this process for us.

  3. Julie Murphy
    September 1, 2017 at 1:32 pm

    The layering of this information has proved invaluable–working through Story Grid book, reading and assimilating info from the website and reading your posts. So, so glad you continue to bring these concepts to us in different ways.

    Ironically, I’m also seeing direct application of these non-fiction story telling concepts to personal development.

    Identifying and delineating want from need is powerful for both the telling and the living of a story. Hope that doesn’t offend the purpose of your material, Shawn. Thanks–you helped.

  4. Dorothy Seeger
    September 21, 2017 at 4:54 pm

    Thank you, Sean. Very helpful article and useful psychological principle. Feed them the sugar first and hit them with the caveat afterwards. A supervisor of mine once said, “Dorothy, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” I didn’t realize this principle can apply to writing as well.

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