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Story Wars
May 13, 2003
By The Plaid Adder

What do the pathetic tale of an unpublished novelist and the 2004 presidential election have in common? More than you would think. The Democratic hopefuls and yours truly are up against the same formidable enemy: the American public's taste in stories. If the Democratic Party wants to unseat Bush in 2004, it will not be enough to have a better candidate, a better platform, better debate performances and a better grasp of reality. What will make the difference is whether the Democrats can come up with a story that will sell better than the one the American public is currently buying. And it will be difficult; but it can be done.

When not using my finely honed bullshit-destruction skills to tear some new fabrication of the Bush team into tiny tiny bits, I write fiction set in an alternate universe which is a lot more fun than this one. Lately I have been trying to sell some of these novels, and it has not been pretty. Like the news media, the publishing industry suffers from consolidation of ownership; there are currently about seven different houses to which you can sell a fantasy novel, and they are all owned by about three parent corporations. Normally when I get rejection letters I just sigh and then file them away. But the last one I got gave me pause.

It was from an editor looking to start up a line in paranormal romance. As rejections go, it was very nice. But I was surprised by one of the objections. Apparently, my novel is not a romance because the couple gets together before the book begins. In other words, from a romance novel point of view, all the interesting stuff has already happened.

The standard formula for romance is pretty simple: two people become attracted, reveal that to each other, negotiate the various obstacles in their path, and finally come together with joyous abandon and brain-melting sex. After that, either the story ends, or a brief honeymoon period quickly deteriorates as the relationship becomes troubled and the couple finally breaks up. There are very few models for a story about a couple that stays in love and stays together over a long period of time. People seem to have a hard time making that interesting.

The fact that my ideas about what's interesting in a romance don't match the market's is not news to me and in the grand scheme of things it's pretty insignificant. What bothers me more is thinking about the impact these mass-produced stories have on the way we all think and feel - not just about romance, but about the world in general. There are all kinds of crackpot theories that explain the divorce rate in America; mine is that because of the stories we are sold, people don't have a realistic idea about what a lifetime relationship involves. The romance formula teaches that once you find the right person, and finally get together with him/her, everything else just falls into place and you live happily ever after. It tells you nothing about the fact that no matter how much you and your partner love each other, there will inevitably be problems, and that the difference between a relationship that lasts and one that doesn't is made not just by who you choose, but by how you deal with the crises that will - not may, will - sometimes make one or both of you unhappy with or in the relationship.

Stories matter; they're how we explain the world to ourselves. My partner the labor lawyer has told me often that in a jury trial, the most important thing to do is to shape the facts into a plausible story. If you can sell the jury on your story, then as the trial unfolds the jury will either disregard the elements that don't fit, or reinterpret them so that they support your narrative. On the other hand, if they decide the other side has a more plausible story, you're screwed no matter how much of the evidence may support you. That's what those "opening statements" are for - to provide the jury with a narrative framework into which the jurors can fit all the bits and pieces that are coming at them. The strength of the story determines their perception of the facts - and then their verdict makes their perception reality.

Media coverage of this administration has proved that this principle applies outside the courtroom. Thanks to corporate control over the airwaves, the major media networks have all been able to construct and support the same story about the war in Iraq: we the heroes, animated by altruistic motives, free the suffering Iraqi people from a brutal dictator and achieve through the bravery and self-sacrifice of our troops a quick, decisive, and relatively painless victory. This story has been told with great attention to symbolism, and both the administration and its media lackeys have become very skilled at providing compelling illustrations. The most blatant recent example is George W. giving his "end of combat operations" speech on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln underneath a banner reading "Mission Accomplished." Every element of that performance was sending the same message: CLOSURE. The story's over; we won the battle, the hero has triumphed, the brave men and women who fought are coming home to their families, the evil empire has been defeated, and all the liberated people are celebrating. It had everything but Princess Leia presenting them with that Sharper Image light globe and a horde of Ewoks gamboling about a celebratory bonfire.

Only the thing is that, like the romance formula, the story the media is telling us about war is a lie, and it is a lie not just because of what it excludes but where it ends. Like the romance formula, this war story has striven to exclude anything messy, ugly, or perverse that might interfere with the audience's fantasization - chiefly civilian death and suffering and American greed, ignorance, and arrogance. But in both cases the biggest lie is the ending. In a relationship, really, finding the person is the easy part; the real story starts after the commitment. And in this war story, the 'victory' was the easy part; the real story is the occupation.

Our media, however, will not be selling us that story; it doesn't fit the formula to which the American public is now addicted. They will instead do what the romance publishers do: discard this story now that it's 'done' and go shopping for the next one. Who will the hero be attracted to this time? Will it be Iran, with her huge reserves of oil and her untamed, rebellious spirit? Or will it be Syria, the overlooked kid sister who suddenly blossoms into a sultry and hotheaded temptress? Or have they got something really new and different up their sleeves this time, a surprise twist that we'll never guess until the last page?

Meanwhile, the fantasy generated by the media will migrate ever farther from the sordid reality. But if the story is strong enough, reality will never have a chance. Any time a fragment of reality breaks through, it will simply be incorporated into the story.

So if we want to win, we have to attack the story. We have to make their story weaker and ours stronger. Unfortunately, the left has always had trouble doing this. Republican ideology lends itself to compelling stories because of its focus on individual responsibility. We have all been raised to expect our stories to focus on specific characters rather than oppressed masses or social forces - and while Americans seem to have an unlimited appetite for stories of sex, violence, and intrigue, a story about economics is almost guaranteed to put people to sleep. And, of course, it's much easier to write good stories when you're ready and willing to lie.

But it can be done. The important thing to remember is that we have to attack their story using story logic, not the logic of the debating floor. We attack their story not by proving that the facts do not support it, but by proving that the story itself does not hang together. And we can attack their story on a number of fronts, including:

Characterization. Their story increasingly depends on Bush as the hero. If we can prove that Bush-as-hero is really a cardboard character, or that his characterization is inconsistent and self-subverting, that's a big blow to the story. The carrier landing, for instance, gives us an opening by allowing us to point out that Bush's character as hero is inconsistent with his character as shirker and deserter. Jon Stewart on the Daily Show did us all a favor by forcing his audience to compare Bush's character as moderate governor of Texas with his wildly inconsistent character as extremist lunatic president. We need to make more of that happen.

Closure. Again, the power of the Republican story is its ability to deliver simple and definite resolutions to complicated problems. The story of the Iraq war is that we defeated the Big Bad Dictator and freed his grateful people, the end. We need to remind people, any way we can, that this "resolution" left a whole lot of loose ends flapping in the wind.

Continuity. Chekhov once said that if you introduce a gun in Act I, it had better go off in Act III. Well, they introduced their idea of the 'smoking gun' in Act I. So far, nothing's gone off. In fact, the story has been changed so often that to believe it's coherent requires a form of amnesia which allows us to forget what happened in Acts I, II, III, and IV in order to swallow what happens in Act V. Many of our fellow-Americans, alas, suffer from this amnesia; but it is not necessarily a permanent condition. If we can keep reminding people of how many plot lines have been started up and then abandoned, they will eventually come to feel about the Bush administration the way many disgruntled X-Philes felt about the last two seasons.

Identification. People like stories where they can identify and sympathize with the protagonist. If we can hammer it home that Bush is not something the average American can identify with, or that any right-thinking human should sympathize with, then we're in business.

While we go to town on their story, we have to come up with one of our own - one which is equally compelling and far more coherent, and which fits neatly with a popular formula. Why not go to the westerns for our inspiration?

A town full of honest and decent people trying to make a living in a harsh environment is terrorized by a group of heavily armed thugs allied with the local magnates who own the town as well as the corrupt or ineffective local law enforcement. As the citizens go about their business in quiet despair, a lone gunman comes riding up the dusty road to town. He's a stranger, and the citizens distrust him; but they realize that whatever his peculiarities, he has no fear of the gang that has been making them miserable. The stranger stands up to the gang; the gang decides he must be destroyed, and they arrange a final showdown at which he will be outmanned and outgunned. But the local citizens, one by one, find their spines and come to his defense. In the end, with the help of his ragtag band, the stranger sends the gang of thugs and robber barons galloping for the hills, as the citizens celebrate with whoops and hollers against the backdrop of a setting sun.

Cheesy? You bet. But cheese sells. We have the story already out there waiting for us. All we have to do is cast the stranger - and figure out how to get the thing produced.


The Plaid Adder's demented ravings have been delighting an equally demented online audience since 1996. More of the same can be found at her website, http://www.plaidder.com

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