Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

Label_Developed

Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

Human survival depends on how we manage our relationship with four, fundamental variables. The variables aren’t really in dispute, but the amount of time we have in which to change our relationship to them is. Simply put, the four variables are as follows:

  1. We live in a fragile, closed system, a little blue marble called Earth.
  2. Earth has finite resources: biodiversity, air, water, minerals, fossil fuels, etc.
  3. We have unchecked population growth.
  4. We rely on growth-based economies.

Yes, yes… I know. Solar radiation enters the system. There’s some hope there. However, we aren’t making new materials. We aren’t adding iron ore to our planet. We aren’t increasing the amount of natural gas and oil in the ground. We aren’t somehow magically manufacturing more water to add to the poisoned water and water ecosystems in a way that will fundamentally change the direction of the deterioration arrow.

The four variables stand, but we argue endlessly about what we should do to lengthen the time we have before those four variables result in an extinction level crash.

Note that I say extinction level crash and not the end of the world. As my astute Physicist brother once told me, “Human beings aren’t going to end the world. We will only end ourselves. The planet was here long before we were, and it will be here long after we are gone.”

And now you’re wondering how the four variables relate to writing.

Well, it’s like this. Telling stories is an ancient tradition that goes all the way back to the beginnings of language use. We erect monkeys have always told stories. We tell them to ourselves to justify stealing bananas from one another. We tell them to our friends and family to create bonding in social systems. We tell them to one another to make sure mistakes aren’t repeated and to ensure that our tribe thrives. One of the most common themes in the stories we have told throughout time is the theme of our village being better than their village. Every hero has a nemesis.

Want to see that theme playing out in a modern social context in America? Go to any Friday or Saturday night high school football game in the country. Observe the cheering, the colors, and the parking lot fights.

Harmless, right? Maybe. The value of team sports debate isn’t what this little blog is about. The point is that the “us vs. them” story is there to see. You can even observe the symbolic battle over land resources playing out on the field.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I love a good game. That’s really not the point. The purpose and value of story is the point.

Story telling is the easiest thing we do. It is also the most complex thing we do as human beings. Putting together a solid narrative, especially on paper, has more in common with interacting wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean than it does with the linear, deceptive advice given to creative writing students. We put the little black squiggles in a row, and that creates an illusion of linear activity; however, the squiggles are just the medium of transfer for the story. The story in one mind is transferred through the little black squiggles into the mind of another person. Minds, unfortunately, are not so linear. They are messy places. They are endless impulses layered and ever changing, arranging, and rearranging into patterns that somehow magically become mind—thought, personality, memory, dreams, hopes, beliefs, learning, and maybe even soul.

Okay, I’m not all that sure about the last one. I have some opinions on what soul is, but I won’t go there in this blog entry. Maybe another time.

Story is, however, the human mind generating a dream-like experience based on sensory input. No two people read the same story quite the same way. No two people write a story quite the same way. Let’s just set aside the fact that no two people have the same life experiences. That, by itself, is enough to prove the last point. However, the endless shifts in levels of neurotransmitters, the organization of dendritic networks, the infinitesimal distances between axons and dendrites, the hormonal and electrical potentials, and the endless layering of all of these things and many more means that it is impossible for each of us to experience what any other person is experiencing when we hear or read a story.

Yes, we all tell stories. We all know that stories are essential to our survival. We all know that we are alive today because someone, somewhere way back in the dim past figured out how to tell a story that included the idea that a sharp stick held at the dull end can keep you alive a little longer than no stick at all.

We told stories to keep our families alive. We told stories to keep our tribes alive. We told stories to make sure everyone in our tribe knew how to behave to ensure that we would thrive. We told stories to explain things that made us uncomfortable because worrying too much about the bright lights in the sky meant we weren’t planting and reaping and breeding. We told stories to make sure that members of our tribe didn’t kill other members of our tribe, but it was totally okay to kill members of any other tribe trying to kill our mammoths.

These stories are part of who we are. They must change if we want to survive.

Every person on Earth lives in a closed system with finite resources, unchecked population growth, and growth-based economies. Any decision, personal or political, that does not mitigate or eliminate one or more of those four variables is a tacit agreement to genocide.

Sadly, we still tell ourselves stories that reinforce tribal behaviors like breeding means healthy tribes, acquisition of resources means more for us, control of territory means we are strong, and us vs. them.

Yet, as there has always been, there is some hope because of story tellers, shamans of the written word, wizards of the wave form and the mind.

If a corporation, government, or individual is telling a story that supports the use of growth-based economy in an ever-shrinking world, they are telling a story that asks millions of people to sacrifice their futures for short-term profit. If any organization tells a tale of policy that will increase population growth without providing compensating increases in resources for the new human beings, they are telling a tale of death for others. If we see a story on the news or on our feeds and it talks of the terrible crimes of protestors attempting to stop pollution, then we are seeing mercenary story-tellers attempt to shorten the time of humanity on this little rock.

For those of us who tell stories for entertainment and edification, fiction writers, we have an obligation to create stories that become viral in a way that suggests new modes of survival.

Heroism has at times been described as the successful search for the grail, and the grail has always been associated with healing and abundance. The stories of today, no less than the stick-holding stories of ten thousand years ago, are about creating visions for survival of the tribe. The only real difference is that the tribe is larger and more complex than it has ever been. We are one tribe that spans the entire Earth.

Story telling and story receiving are more complex than the interaction of wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean. However, human beings have always been built to do this amazing thing—to share tales that will help us all survive. Those of us who tell the tales must step up and tell the stories that lead the imaginations of the members of our tribe to an understanding that holding the blunt end of the new pointy stick means having the ability to embrace people who don’t, and physiologically should never be expected to, think the way we do. We must tell the tales that show that every drop of water on this planet is sacred, that every hole we dig hurts us, that every child we force into the world must be fed, and that taking in order to have more means hurting people who will, by direct causal effect, have less.

Look carefully at every story produced and presented. Find the four variables in each tale. Does that story help slow population growth? Does that story reduce our dependence on the market growth that drives economies? Does that story slow the rate of use of nonrenewable resources? Does that story open the world to distant horizons so that our system, and the minds within it, are no longer closed?

-End-

What I Learned About Plot by Watching Orphan Black

by Christina Lay

This post is a direct rip-off of Liz Engstrom’s post about the characters in Downton Abbey. But it’s also true I’ve been having this conversation with myself for a while now, an internal discussion inspired by my love/hate relationship with this near future SF TV series. I watched the first three seasons over the course of a few months and a couple times when I turned off my Kindle, I thought I wouldn’t be going back, but I couldn’t resist. Naturally as a writer when I experience both exasperation and fascination, I have to question what’s going on and how the writers have managed to piss me off and hook me in at the same time.

If you haven’t watched the show, this is a British series about clones. Yes, clones. The big secret revealed in the first episode is that the main character, Sarah Manning, is a clone. She meets several of her “sisters”, along the way, all with wildly different personalities, all played by the absolutely amazing Tatiana Maslany.

468551-orphan-black-orphan-black

Sarah, stuck between a hard place and another hard place, as usual.

We have Sarah, the street-tough Brit with a heart of gold, Beth the cop who’s identity she steals in the first show, Alison the suburban soccer mom, Cosima the nerdy scientist, Helena the psychopathic Ukrainian nut job, Rachel the evil director of an evil corporation, and so on. The best character in the series, in my opinion, is Sarah’s brother Felix, the smart-alec gay artist who is Sarah’s rock, although she constantly ignores his sensible warnings.

All great fodder for a wild SF thriller. So how did this series hook me?

  • Great acting. For a writer, this can translate into great character development and dialogue. In other words, how convincingly we portray our characters on the page.
  • The characters are working toward a solution, finding answers, taking the bull by the horns, etc. They aren’t sitting back waiting to be victimized. Being clones is out of their control, but they never stop fighting back against the Evil Corp that would destroy them.
  • Constant, exciting forward motion of the plot. This can easily be overdone but Orphan Black manages it well, alternating the life-or-death situations with down time for deepening relationships between the characters— just a breather right before they get shoved off the next cliff.
  • Good guys win more of the battles. This is a big one for me. I have a low tolerance for grim, unrelenting BADNESS just for the sake of being grim and bad. While the “war” continues to expand, with more bigger and badder bad guys always crawling out of the woodwork, the immediate LOD situations Sarah finds herself in are usually resolved in a satisfying, aren’t we all relieved she survived/escaped/rescued the kitten etc. sort of way.
  • Plenty of humor and a sense that the writers are aware there is a ridiculous side to this story.
  • Not overdoing the Next Worst Thing. There’s a rule in writing that states in order to keep the conflict and tension building, you should ask yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen to your character and then make it so. Again, easily overdone. I for one get tired of brutality and misery pretty darn quick. Orphan Black definitely has a dark edge and bad things happen, but the hook for me is that although the ‘worst thing’ often looms as a threat, it usually doesn’t happen. This is a big relief to me as a viewer.

So how did this series piss me off?

  • Relentless stupid character syndrome. Making bad decisions over and over. True, these decisions are often what forwards the plot, but I really wanted Sarah to get smarter. There is only so often you can throw yourself against Evil Corp with no plan other than to wave a gun around, get caught, get saved and then do it all over again.
  • Overuse of the Big Coincidence. To the point of eye-rolling and mockery. And it wasn’t even new coincidences, but the same old one used in nearly every episode; no matter how far Sarah runs or how well the characters hide themselves, the bad guys show up like five minutes later with absolutely no explanation of how they ended up there. And don’t even get me started on the pencil to the eyeball moment.
  • Well-meaning bystanders as sacrificial victims. I mentioned above that one of the things I liked about the series was that our heroines tend not to die. Orphan Black gets around this pesky issue and retains its hard edge by pretty much murdering any minor character who decides to help Sarah. This irritates me. I think this is a matter of tone. On one hand, OB is a fun, humorous, somewhat ridiculous thriller, but on the other, it goes for the brutal dystopian view of an Evil Corp run world where bad guys can indiscriminately blow away cops and bartenders with no fear of reprisal. Maybe as writers we can have it both ways, but we have to be much more sparing with our use of senseless violence if we want to keep the viewer/reader who is attracted by a lighter touch.
  • Overuse of theme music. Helena, the psycho sister, comes with her own sound track. Whenever she’s about to do something wacked, the music becomes what I can only describe as techno noise-to-hack-and slash-to. Perhaps it’s off the Serial Killers’ playlist. As a writer, this would take the form of waaaay overdone foreshadowing. In OB, it actually worked the first few times, but then it became comical. You don’t want to rob your wildly flawed villain/heroine of her impact by making her cartoonish. Again it almost seemed as if the writers weren’t sure if they wanted to be funny or scary.
OrphanBlack-Character-Helena-970x545

Cue theme music

Conclusions:

  • Plot is ultimately character-driven. Anything can happen that’s out of the characters’ control: flood, famine, cloning. How the characters respond is what really matters. You can get away with almost anything if you create characters who are interesting, engaging, and yes, likable. I firmly believe you need at least one character to root for in order to keep the readers interest up past the initial “isn’t this interesting” phase of a book or series.
  • Allow your characters to Learn From Their Mistakes and to behave differently. While Sarah gets a little bit softer, she keeps doing the same exact dumb things and endangering everyone around her. There are plenty of new dumb mistakes for characters to make, so why keep rehashing the same old ones?
  • If you’re going to bring in characters simply to give the bad guys someone expendable to kill, do so sparingly. Overuse reduces impact and pisses me off.
  • If you’re writing a thriller, keep it thrilling. Not a lot of introspection going on in OB, but it works because exciting stuff keeps happening, the characters respond in new and inventive ways (unless they’re Sarah), and there is very little time to worry about all the glaring errors in logic.

Ultimately, I stopped watching. To be honest, it was the abuse of the innocents that finally killed it for me. I’m sure some day I’ll get over it and watch Season 4 and whatever comes next, but for the moment, the errors overwhelmed the genius. Perhaps the main lesson to learn is don’t become so enthralled with your inventiveness that you forget to mind the basics.

What is Our Responsibility?

by Elizabeth Engstrom

People read our words. Those of us who have the compulsion—the calling—to write have a message, whether we can articulate it or not. We have something to say that goes beyond plot and characters and conflict. But what we do with fiction is cloak our message in the nouns and verbs that dramatize a sliver of our message. Taken collectively, an author’s message becomes clearer in his/her entire body of work.

This is a responsibility that every published writer ought to consider. We’ve all heard about the influence a piece of writing or a body of work has on those who do great damage. We’ve also heard about—and likely experienced—the positive effects of the written word.

It is worth a moment of pause for every one of us to consider what it is that we put from our shady imaginations out into the world. We can write violence and destruction, if the message is hope and salvation. We can write heartbreak and sorrow if the message is healing. We can write fear and loathing if the message is calm and acceptance.

We must not confuse the plot with the message. The message is contained in the hearts of the characters and how they deal with the conflict or tragedy that has befallen them. This is not only the heart of the story; it is the heart of the writer. Let us not forget that it affects the heart of the reader. And that is a responsibility.