Whoopi Goldberg’s 1992 nun-based musical comedy Sister Act probably isn't what Rachel Clancy & Aida Sancho (Tea Creature Studios) had in mind when they asked me to say a few things about the narrative design of A Hero's Guide To Gardening. It isn't even what I had in mind when I first pitched the idea. Nevertheless, tracing the roots of my storytelling vocabulary back through my childhood takes me to Whoopi, hands raised to the sky singing churchified versions of Motown hits. Sanctus sanctus dominus!
A Hero’s Guide To Gardening is not about a lounge singer placed in a convent by the witness protection program to hide her from the mob. But it's close. (It's not.) It's about a girl called Noomi who wants to be a hero: a potion-guzzling, sword-swinging, monster-slaying hero.
We meet Noomi shortly before she embarks on her first summer away from home. She's off to attend 'ADVENTURING 101' - an introductory class for All Things Heroic. However, when she arrives at camp she learns that, due to a clerical error that is entirely her fault, she hasn't been enrolled in 'ADVENTURING 101' after all. Instead, she's been assigned 'BOTANY FOR BEGINNERS' - an entirely dull-sounding introductory course on gardening.
Because Noomi is a perfectionist, because she struggles to share her vulnerable side with other people, her response to this disappointing news is to lie and cover it up. She not only claims to have deliberately chosen 'BOTANY FOR BEGINNERS', she doubles-down on her lie and identifies herself as a Master Gardener, ready to take on the very hardest of botanical challenges and even mentor the other students.
To recap: we have a main character pretending to be something they’re not. An imposter masquerading as a mentor.
Now, I don’t know what this says about me but the idea to make Noomi a bit of a fraud came like a bolt from the blue. It was also one of those ideas that made every other idea fit together perfectly- the story threads, character motivations and game mechanics suddenly snapped into alignment with one another. Short of a supernatural explanation, I think whenever divine intervention strikes, the most likely culprits are 1) blind luck or 2) unconscious memory.
I was an 80s/90s crossover kid, so in addition to having the figures of Sister Mary Clarence's holy choir permanently burnt into the pixels of our television set, VHS copies of ¡Three Amigos!, Big, Kindergarten Cop, Mrs Doubtfire and Aladdin were regular obstacles left behind on our living room floor at the end of each day.
From a storyteller's perspective, imposters make great surrogates for the audience, especially when ‘stepping into the unknown’ of Act 2. Those exposition-baiting questions writers usually try to camouflage ("What's my role in the heist we spent six months planning again?") suddenly become tentpole moments of conflict in each scene. It's down to the protagonist to perform the awkward juggling act of asking for clarification while maintaining their cover- the writer can just sit back with audience and watch!
Imposters are perfect for telling Rites of Passage stories. The fraudulent identity often represents exactly what is missing from the protagonist: becoming Mrs Doubtfire forces Robin Williams' character to become the father and homemaker he never was; in ¡Three Amigos! the titular trio are forced to become the heroes they once merely pretended to be. Sometimes the fraudulent character presents us with a cautionary tale: Aladdin learns that impersonating a prince actually takes him further away from the 'street rat' persona Jasmine initially fell in love with, and that honesty is the only thing that can repair their relationship.
The crucial point in any imposter's journey comes when the lie is inevitably exposed. That's when we learn whether the journey was actually worth it, whether it actually taught them anything. Sister Act is a feel-good movie, unapologetically so. Everyone has the opportunity to grow: the convent changes Deloris forever, and Deloris changes the convent in return. Some endings are more bittersweet- as a child I desperately wanted Sally Fields to take Robin Williams back at the end of Mrs Doubtfire, but as an adult I'm so grateful she didn't. Accepting her decision about their relationship is the final test for him, and the grace he finds by the end demonstrates just how much he's changed.
Whether things turn out quite so well for Noomi is another matter. Regardless, looking at the family tree of liars, frauds and bluffers that came before her, I'm happy to say she's in fine company.
P.S. While I didn't grow up with them, here are few imposter stories I've fallen in love with since!
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