Thursday, June 12, 2008

Another Quote from Me

I used to argue that there three kinds of story: the wish fulfillment fantasies about solving problems and changing the world that are so far from reality that nothing useful can be taken from them. You can't kill the boss with an enchanted sword. You can't flee the authorities on your winged horse.

The second type, often more intelligently written, is the story (ultimately) of despair. Our social problems cannot be solved. We cannot build a new world in the shill of the old. Either life is okay in a limited way, or it is dark. Either way, we are stuck with the status quo.

Focus on yourself, your problems, your own personal angst. Life is about the personal and the individual.

The first kind of story is aimed at working people, as I use the term,which means the population at large. It's mind candy, though -- at least -- it admits that there is injustice and struggle in life. The second kind of story is aimed at the middle class people who maybe feel some discomfort about their jobs and lives. It says, don't try for anything better. There is nothing better.

It is (often) a story about living in a box lined with mirrors.

Finally, there are stories that question that status quo and say: community is real; society is real; injustice and struggle are real; the world can be changed. Not easily, but it can be done.

But this is message, not narrative structure.


Blogger Tim Susman said...

One of the things I really appreciated about our screenwriting teacher was that in discussing the narrative structure of movies, he included the message as part of the structure. The character (in a well-structured movie) begins with a problem or deficiency, an idea about how to live life that is going to be challenged by the events of the movie. The character's "moral need" will be addressed by the movie--but not necessarily fixed. I loved that in his class, he took as a prerequisite that every story must have a moral conflict and a message.

I tend to agree with you on the narrower focus. I like Kim Stanley Robinson's "Wild Shore" better than "Red Mars," for instance. The first discusses societal problems through their effect on an individual; the second is a broad sweeping tale of a society in which it's hard (for me) to get any bearing or foothold. I do believe in stories with messages, but those messages can be simple and needn't be blared with a bullhorn. The choices of an individual can reflect the actions of a society.

We had this discussion in the writer's group last night, albeit briefly, about the continuing trend of movies that boil the civil rights struggle down to a sports team. Yes, it simplifies the whole movement, but the movement is played out over and over in stages like this, a thousand times or a hundred thousand. All these movies are doing is showing you the larger question through the lens of a small, contained story.

And that is what I try to do. I find the individual journey to be the most interesting, but an individual is a product of society. I loved David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas" for many reasons, but one of them was that through his stories of six individuals, he constructed a larger point, a valid message, about the whole of human society and human history.

I'm not sure this is entirely relevant to your posting, but I do think it's something that often gets lost. It's not something that a reader might put his or her finger on, but people notice when it's missing, on some level. The wish-fulfillment stories, which abound in SF and fantasy, are unsatisfying for just that reason. At least, they are to me.

2:34 PM  

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