Today, and continuing throughout November, I am presenting a series of posts I’m calling The Happiness Plot, which will make up a very brief introduction to storytelling structure. A perfect way to stay in the groove for NaNoWriMo2014.
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To find the beginning of The Happiness Plot, click here or “The Happiness Plot” category listing to the right.
Now, we continue with The Happiness Plot…
How to Stop Preaching in Your Fiction
“The artist whose chief goal is not to make everything more beautiful but to enlist his audience in a cause—no matter what that cause may be—is rarely if ever prepared to tell the whole truth and nothing but. He replaces the true complexity of the world with the false simplicity of the ideologue. He alters reality not to make everything more beautiful, but to stack the deck.”
–Terry Teachout, remarks upon accepting his recent Bradley Prize
Setting up a story as what McKee calls a “dramatized dialectical debate” allows the reader or audience to experience the real texture of the moral argument at the heart of the story. Stories can work without such debate: e.g. superhero myths or thrillers where it’s Good Guys versus Baddies, or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the bad guy of which is mute for 1,000 pages. Such stories work either because of the excitement generated by the prowess of the hero and the external obstacles he or she faces, or because interesting moral argument is generated elsewhere than in the central plot (in Frodo and Sam’s struggle with trusting Gollum, or in Gollum’s struggle with his alter-ego, Smeagol, as opposed to Frodo and Sam’s often tedious efforts to evade Sauron).
But stories with dramatized dialectical debates in their central plot typically have a deeper moral richness and thereby generate greater audience fascination and longer endurance. Moreover, as McKee notes, the dialectic involved in such a story helps the author avoid the temptations of didacticism. What McKee argues about screenwriting applies to all the narrative arts:
When the premise of a story “is an idea you feel you must prove to the world, and you design your story as an undeniable certification of that idea, you set yourself on the road to didacticism. In your zeal to persuade, you will stifle the voice of the other side. Misusing and abusing art to preach, your screenplay will become a thesis film, a thinly disguised sermon as you strive in a single stroke to convert the world. Didacticism results from the naive enthusiasm that fiction can be used like a scalpel to cut out the cancers of society.”
So the best way for the writer to avoiding moralizing, therefore, is to create a story in which two or more points of view conflict–each of which is compelling. “As a story develops,” continues McKee, “you must willingly entertain opposite, even repugnant ideas. The finest writers have dialectical, flexible minds that easily shift points of view. They see the positive, the negative, and all shades of irony, seeking the truth of these views honestly and convincingly.”
This doesn’t mean that one point of view won’t “win out” in the story’s climax. But it does mean that this moral truth, if it is one, will only manifest itself and reveal its force through a spirited combat with points of view that oppose it, but which also seem to have some truth to them. This is the case, at least, in the most humanly complex kinds of story.