There’s this story that’s gone viral about a mother, Anna MacLean, who took her autistic daughter, Arianna, out for lunch
to Chili’s. I’d like to discuss this story as a way of breaking down good storytelling.
So, Anna takes her daughter out for lunch, and Arianna orders her favorite dish, a hamburger and fries. But when her meal comes, she refuses to eat her burger.
“It’s broken,” she tells her mother. Because it’s cut in half.
This sort of situation isn’t anything out of the ordinary for Anna. She’s spent the greater part of the past 7 or 8 years raising her daughter, but somewhere in that time she’s become apologetic about her daughter’s autism. She only takes her daughter out on “good days.” So the waitress comes around and the mother, apologizing, tells the waitress she needs to order another hamburger.
“I’ll pay for it,” Anna says, explaining her daughter has autism. But something really beautiful happened that afternoon. Something unexpected but small. A kind gesture, really.
Rather than nodding, smiling and turning on heel to grab another burger, the waitress knelt beside the table. She looked across at Arianna, who was notably distressed, and apologized for the “broken” burger.
When Arianna received her fixed hamburger, she kissed it. It wasn’t broken anymore.
Anna posted the story on Chili’s Facebook page and the whole thing has sort of blown up. But why?
Because it has all the makings of a good story.
For one, we have the mother, Anna, whom we sympathize with because she has committed her life to her child. We know that there can be daily hurdles when raising children with autism, and we know from the story that she is apologetic and a bit weathered, but that also that day at Chili’s was special. She doesn’t get to take her daughter out often so their lunch carries an incredible amount of weight for Anna, who is happy to spend time in public with her daughter but is also a bit scared that she might have a tantrum.
The lunch is going well. Anna is pleased, but then Arianna’s burger arrives and it’s cut in half. She says, “It’s broken.” There’s no other way to explain it. It’s a very simple thing and nothing out of the ordinary for Anna, who explains in her post that her daughter needs certain consistencies in her life.
But in the framework of a story, it can be tremendously powerful. I’m going to fictionalize the story a bit here for the sake of breaking down its strengths.
So, if I had written this story, what conflicts would our protagonist Anna face?
1. Internal conflict: Anna wishes her daughter did not have autism and she is embarrassed by her daughter’s tantrums because she believes most people are not understanding of autism. She loves her daughter absolutely but is tired from the care her daughter requires. She wouldn’t give up her daughter for the world but she also wishes, deep down, that her daughter could have a normal life.
This conflict is the focal point of our story. We sympathize with Anna but also disagree with her embarrassment. We want her to understand that it’s okay if her daughter causes a stir. We also want her to wholeheartedly accept her child.
2. External conflict: Arianna becomes upset by her broken hamburger. The story leading up to this would be an introduction to Anna’s life. Maybe we see her’s and her daughter’s morning routine; a look at how Arianna can become upset over things we do not understand; and how Anna is embarrassed or frustrated by her daughter. Most importantly, we would have a moment where Anna sees that her daughter is having a ” good day” and takes a chance on taking her out for the afternoon. That would build up our hope that nothing bad happens, setting up tension for the scene at Chili’s.
The day is going well but then Arianna begins to act up at the table. Anna becomes worried. She doesn’t want her daughter to make a scene. Then, the burger arrives and Anna’s day comes crashing down.
Even worse, the waitress is there to bear witness, and she’s confused by the scene. This is pivotal because Anna is now having to face her biggest fear and she’s physically trapped. She can’t just up and leave the restaurant.
So, you know how you’re supposed to make your characters suffer? In this story, this would be Anna’s moment. She’s completely vulnerable. How the waitress reacts could forever solidify her insecurities about her daughter’s autism. And we’re hanging on to this moment. All the while, Arianna is saying, “It’s broken. It’s broken,” and Anna is apologizing. And we know that even though Arianna is talking about the burger, she’s also verbalizing Anna’s unspoken thoughts about her daughter.
The scene has all the makings of a disaster. But then, something beautiful happens.
The waitress does something small. Unexpected. Not only does she speak to Arianna directly, rather than through Anna which is what she expects, she treats Arianna like any other little girl. She doesn’t judge her for refusing to eat a burger cut in half. She is understanding, apologizes for the burger, and gets a new one.
And when Arianna gets her new hamburger, she kisses it. It’s no longer broken.
That moment changes Anna’s perspective forever. She sees her daughter differently; Arianna is not broken and her autism is not what defines her. Best of all, this monumental revelation is brought on by a waitress’ small act. All she did was deliver a burger!
Her act of kindness also rattles us because it’s a projection of our deepest wishes: to communicate to Anna that we don’t care if Arianna has a tantrum in public. We just want her to be loved wholeheartedly.
Autism is a sensitive subject to tackle. Like stories of soldiers broken by war or the LGBT community being harassed, it’s easy to step on toes with this kind of story, especially if the writer lives outside of the topic. I wrote a novella about a soldier who returned from Iraq with PTSD. It was a stream of conscious surrealistic piece. But there was a student in my program who read it and was appalled. No, he was pissed. He told me I had no right to write that kind of story. I didn’t have the credentials for it. But I felt it was a story, a topic, worth writing about.
In the same vein, Anna’s story is taboo. But it pulls at our heart strings for the right reasons. We are cheering Anna and Arianna on–we want their day to be perfect–but we’re also deeply aware and understanding of Anna’s internal struggle. When the waitress witnesses Arianna at her worst, we’re on our toes. We know how we want the waitress to react but we’re scared to find out what comes next, like Anna. There’s a lot of good tension there.
And when the waitress goes beyond what we expected, we cheer. We’re happy! Because that moment changes everything, and it leaves us feeling like we witnessed something monumental. And that’s all we want from our stories. A resolution, some peace of mind and joy.