Tag Archives: narrative

Links: Narrative empathy, for good or ill

For good:  This article by Amy McLay Paterson at Vox cites these articles suggesting that reading literary fiction improves readers’ ability to empathize.

For ill: “How Stories Deceive” suggests that “when we become swept up in powerful narrative, our reason often falls by the wayside,” and people can get conned.

Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University and the director of its Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, studies the power of story in our daily interactions with friends, strangers, books, television, and other media. Repeatedly, he has found that nothing makes us receptive, emotionally and behaviorally, quite like narrative flow.”

Narrative ads, like some of Budweiser’s Super Bowl ads, “work because they appeal to your emotions by drawing you into a story that you can’t help but be moved by. From that point on, you are governed by something other than reason. Emotion is the key to empathy. Arouse us emotionally and we will identify with you and your plight. Keep us cold, and empathy won’t blossom.”

Paterson gives an example of how empathizing with imaginary characters can be frustrating: “I cursed myself for wasting energy on an unworthy title, hate-reading the last 200 pages of The Rosie Effect because I’d liked The Rosie Project and wanted to make sure that everything turned out okay.”

In other recent news about narratives: “All Stories Are the Same“: This article makes a claim about the universality of this narrative:

All plunge their characters into a strange new world; all involve a quest to find a way out of it; and in whatever form they choose to take, in every story “monsters” are vanquished. All, at some level, too, have as their goal safety, security, completion, and the importance of home.

But this article oversimplifies when it claims that “all stories are forged from the same template, writers simply don’t have any choice as to the structure they use; the laws of physics, of logic, and of form dictate they must all follow the very same path.” And I don’t agree with this article’s emphasis on following the “template” — “a piano played without knowledge of time and key soon becomes wearisome to listen to”  — as if an artwork being “wearisome” were a sin.

And this:Christmas: The Greatest Story Ever Told?” at The Atlantic points out that this narrative “contained many of the time-tested elements of good storytelling.” But of course, this narrative is significantly fictionalized in its basic facts:

The beautiful Nativity story in Luke, for instance, in which a Roman census forces the Holy Family to go back to its ancestral city of Bethlehem, is an obvious invention, since there was no Empire-wide census at that moment, and no sane Roman bureaucrat would have dreamed of ordering people back to be counted in cities that their families had left hundreds of years before. The author of Luke, whoever he might have been, invented Bethlehem in order to put Jesus in David’s city.

Link: Marvel movies avoid character growth

This piece by Sady Doyle describes a problem she sees in too many Marvel films: a willingness to nearly forego characters in service of fights and set-pieces.

Character arcs aren’t negotiable. They’re not highbrow or pretentious or complicated. Character arcs are essential to the success of any story in any genre. To understand why all this matters, look at the Hulk’s arc in the first Avengers, which many people consider to be the most successful part of that movie. I would argue that it’s actually the most successful element of any Marvel movie to date. In the first Avengers, the Hulk (1) hates being the Hulk, (2) encounters a situation that can only be resolved by becoming the Hulk, and (3) embraces being the Hulk. Simple, right? Stupid simple. Yet it landed like a ton of bricks in the theater, because that’s what stories are. Stories use cause and effect to dramatize a process whereby a person is forced to change.

Hulk’s arc, simple as it might be, was a cause-and-effect process that dramatized a universal human problem: You might not always like yourself, so you can identify with someone who doesn’t like himself, and therefore,you will experience catharsis when a story gives the both of you permission to love yourselves. When he goes on that final rampage and slams Loki into the floor, that’s not just a cartoon causing some corporate-mandated violence: That’s you, loving your body despite being the “wrong” size, or making feminist points in a conversation without worrying that someone will call you a buzzkill, or being proud of your art despite the fact that it’s been rejected, or deciding that you can leave your abusive relationship because you are worthy of respect. Hulk smash inner self-loathing, and thereby becomes the most powerful force in the universe.

So finally, our hero, a suicidal man who has spent the whole movie telling himself he’s worthless and intrinsically inferior to other people, encounters Loki, an arrogant, sneering, hyper-critical, hyper-verbal character — a character who mysteriously chooses that very moment to begin a monologue about how worthless the Avengers are, and how inferior they are to him — and suddenly, Loki hits the floor. Hard. And every time Loki hits that floor, all over the world, the theater erupts with screams of joy. There is a release that goes beyond the rational or the personal, here: The noise of hundreds of strangers united for just one second in the realization that deep down, despite all the pain, despite all the shit they put themselves through, despite the endless cruelty that inner critical voice subjects them to, they don’t have to let it keep talking. Deep down, they are not ugly or stupid or unlovable or bad or worthless. Deep down, they are strong. They are heroes.

Speaking of heroes, here’s Joseph Campbell: “Atonement consists in no more than the abandonment of that self-generated double monster — the dragon thought to be God (superego) and the dragon thought to be Sin (repressed id).” When the superego’s judgment is no longer powerful enough to annihilate us (puny God) and the id is accepted by the ego without fear (I’m always angry), our wholeness is restored, our place in the cosmos is found, and we are free. It hits us so hard, all we can do is scream.

Don’t let anyone tell you that silly popcorn movies don’t matter, or that they can’t be smart or beautiful or profound. A silly popcorn movie can change your life. All it has to do is create characters with identifiable, human problems, and let them work out those problems over the course of the story. Stories are about change, and about people, because ultimately, they are about you, the person sitting in a dark theater, working out your baggage by projecting it onto CGI cartoons of overly handsome actors.

Here’s another way to put it: The extent to which a movie invests in character-based, character-driven storytelling is the extent to which it recognizes, appreciates, and honors the humanity of its audience.

So when Age of Ultron doesn’t invest — when it goes by the assumption that the formula, and the formula alone, is enough to appease the popcorn-eaters — it says something pretty bad.

And Doyle describes how short-cutting a story means the story relies on cliches and stereotypes:

But when the character-based screenwriting breaks down, so does the feminism. Black Widow is just as ill-served as every other character in that story, but because she’s a woman, it’s politically offensive as well as aesthetically offensive.

Let’s take a moment to recognize that, given the paucity of time for character work in Age of Ultron, nearly all of the character development is done with shortcuts. I’m talking real hack stuff, like “each character has a hallucination establishing his inner conflicts and backstory,” or “we know this character is old-fashioned because he doesn’t like swearing” (brought up so many times that I get the sense it was meant to pay off, in the same way the constant questions about Banner’s “secret” paid off last time — was there a climactic F-bomb from Steve that got cut for the rating?) or even “the circle of life is established by naming a baby after the dead guy.” (This, aside from giving me flashbacks to the infamously terrible ending of Harry Potter, is especially egregious because the baby’s mother never met the dead guy — and, if she ever knew that the dead guy existed, which is highly debatable, she knew him as “that guy who’s trying to murder my husband.” She names her baby after someone she never met, on the premise that her husband once slightly got along with him for about two hours. Stirring!) Jokes get underlined by characters explaining them and noting that they were humorous. Some characters just walk into a room, announce their backstory, and leave. (“How are you, Sam?” “I AM HAPPY PURSUING OUR MISSING PERSONS CASE IN DC.”) Nothing ever really gets written, or earned, just vaguely outlined. It’s a whole script made of placeholders.

But when you’re doing all your character work with shortcuts, and you have to write a shortcut for your female character, what do you come up with?She’s that one dude’s girlfriend, obviously, is a time-honored shortcut, used or teased by every Marvel writer who’s put Black Widow in a movie — as a woman, she’s an Other, and a sexual object, and therefore must be deployed as a potential or actual sexual reward for a male viewpoint character, rather than being a viewpoint herself. But that’s the same problem you find with every woman in every Marvel movie (Gamora, Agent Carter, Pepper, whatever Natalie Portman’s name is supposed to be) except for Maria Hill, who is clearly saving herself for her one true love, Exposition. If you want to deepen your female character past being a sexual object, in a movie that has no time or patience for anything resembling “depth,” what conflicts do you give her? Well, women have babies, right? Women want babies. Okay. She can’t have babies. She’s sad because she can’t have babies. There you go! Depth established!

I mean, it’s disgusting. Defining your female character’s motivation solely around the Betty Crocker axis of “wants boyfriend” and “wants babies” is 100% disgusting. But if you look around, all of this is disgusting, because all of the characters are exactly this vapid, because [“Avengers: Age of Ultron” writer and director Joss] Whedon can’t get more than five or ten minutes to establish or complicate their motivations, because Marvel is mandating that he not waste screen time on things like the characters’ motivations when he could be shooting ads for their other movies, because Marvel doesn’t care about men, women, or anything except getting you to show up in a few years for the next installment of Avengers.

I never thought I’d be the kind of person who believed that a crime against feminism was less important than a crime against storytelling, but in this case, they’re so interconnected that it’s hard to tell the difference. When you can’t write, you can’t write women.

And Doyle is concerned that maybe there’s a more depressing reason for the poor character development:

There’s an alternate interpretation for that Hulk-slams-Loki scene in the first Avengers. I try, very hard, to believe it’s not the correct one. Because it’s an evil message, which cynics will tell you is at the heart of every comic book movie. It is: Punching is better than talking.

It happens in a lot of big, commercial movies, right? There’s a guy who talks a lot, thinks, plans, tries to get somewhere by thinking. In the end, that guy is evil, because thinking is bad. He has to be subdued by the heroic brute: The guy who’s just “normal,” who’s more like you, more pure, because instead of thinking and analyzing, he just feels and does. Loki thinks he can get somewhere with a monologue, but surprise! Giant biceps trump clever monologue, every time.

So there’s your other interpretation, the thing I think is at the core of Marvel’s contempt for people: Punching is better than talking. Doing is better than thinking. Instinct is better than intellect; big is better than smart. We don’t need to understand the Stormtroopers; we don’t need to talk to them. That’s thinking, which is boring. We just need to kill: They don’t have names or histories or families or feelings, and by slaughtering them, thousands of them, we prove that we can do.

The audience doesn’t need dialogue or character or psychological growth. The audience needs explosions, because they’re animals, and all they want is blood on the floor. The audience doesn’t need to be surprised or challenged with a new story. The audience wants the old story, because they’ve bought it ten times already, and at the end of the day, we just convinced these f*cking yahoos to wait three years and pay us twenty dollars so we could tell them to come back in four years and pay us $40. Now you think they want personal growth? Give me a break. They’re barely even people.

I mean: You pump this message out into the atmosphere, and then you’resurprised when the biggest fans are ready to send death threats to a director to save the Almighty Brand? Punching is better than talking, rage is better than understanding, conflicts are resolved by annihilating the other person without feeling bad about it: You just told them that. Over and over, and made them pay for the privilege of hearing it. You can’t possibly be surprised that they believe it’s true.

It kills me that I am so bothered by this. I understand that these movies are power fantasies for nine-year-olds: At the end of the day, accepting that they’re stupid is probably smarter than wishing for them to be smart. But this is the epicenter of pop culture. Everyone is expected to share power fantasies with nine-year-olds now, and worse than that, to take them seriously; to make them into a lifestyle. The Marvel virus has already overtaken movies; now, it’s infiltrated a new host, TV, and is hollowing it out from within.

The aim is not one or two bad movies a year, it’s a total lifestyle regimen of bad pop culture: In order to keep up with the Avengers, you need to keep up with Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, and in order to keep up with those, you should probably be watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which will really help you keep up with Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel, andGuardians of the Galaxy, and in order to make sure you’re on top of these nine essential movie franchises and able to make sense of their plots, you’ll need to keep a constant stream of Marvel product in your life, so make sure to tune in for Agent Carter, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and, of course, the forthcoming Hulu triumphs, Ant-Man’s One Weird Friend Gary and Guy Running Away From Explosion In Panel 17.

The problems with Marvel’s storytelling will be the problems of narrative storytelling for the foreseeable future. Once this is over, we’ll be dealing with a generation raised on this stuff, who believes it’s how storytelling ought to work: Harry Potter came out when I was in high school. I’m in my thirties, and I still haven’t seen the end of the “serialized YA fantasy” onslaught. Something this big sticks around.

I love stupid popcorn movies. I do. I believe they can be emotionally resonant, mythic, that they can do the same thing all stories are meant to do — speak to the soul; challenge us to be more and better than we were — and can use big, fantastic elements to tell big, human truths. I also believe that Marvel has no investment in doing so; that, even if they manage to grab a director who is capable of doing those things, the prioritization of the brand and the formula over individual creators will ultimately sabotage the attempt.

Avengers: Age of Ultron wasn’t just bad. It was, to me, proof that Marvel movies, even at their best, can only be bad. And that they are going to get worse. The human mission has been lost: these are faceless Stormtrooper movies, unleashed in waves upon the presumed-to-be-faceless Stormtrooper audience. Stories are an affirmation of our human value; they teach us what life means, make and keep us human. Marvel, by removing the human from its storytelling, may be bringing about the end of story altogether. F*ck Ultron: Marvel Comics has built the army of machines that might really end the world.

20 Unsatisfying-To-Read Stories

Many popular stories — in everything from fairy tales to Hollywood movies — depict low-probability outcomes: the hero saves the day at the last minute, the lovers overcome all obstacles to be together, and the world is a place of cosmic/karmic justice. Sure, I get that there’s something satisfying about long odds being overcome, and yet I also get a little tired of how predictable these story conclusions are. There ought to be ways of telling stories that aren’t simply about the unusual, infrequent circumstances. Below, then, is a list that is not meant to be cynical (even if  some of these scenarios may reflect real-life experiences), but is meant to demonstrate stories that are not often told (in fiction or nonfiction):

1. The better team wins, and the score’s not even close.

2. Two people meet, and are polite to each other, and that’s it.

3. Both combatants act unethically.

4. Someone dies in a car accident and it’s not his fault.

5. An attractive couple has a wonderful house, adorable children, satisfying work, and long lives.

6. A father tells his daughter to marry a man she doesn’t love because, her father says, the man will be a good provider. She marries the man and is provided for but never loves him.

7. A species goes extinct, and nobody is able to save it at the last minute.

8. The bully/criminal/abuser/harasser gets away with it.

9. Scientists warn that human activity will, in coming years, radically change conditions across much of the planet, and most of the population seems uninterested in trying to prevent it.

10. The conflict was never necessary and was joined because of a lack of imagination, wisdom, or patience on both sides.

11. Grass grows; paint dries; taxes accrue; people die.

12. The first person to die in an action story narrates the story, and stops narrating when he dies, and the story stops there.

13. Readers see a few moments of stream-of-consciousness of every person at a public event, like a concert or a football game.

14. A war is going on, but it’s meaningful only to the humans involved. Animals in the war zone go about their business, and we see the story from the animals’ P.O.V.

15. The writer stops telling the story and never finishes it.

16. The characters in a book are revealed to be merely ideas and not really relatable to real people at all.

17. The story, if indeed there is a story there, never quite gets conveyed by the words that make up the text that purports to tell the story.

18. The would-be writer stops thinking of his own life as if he were the main character of a novel.

19. The characters resist the author’s directorial control and refuse to carry out what the writer writes.

20. A reader sits in the grass and realizes that the story was all just made up B.S. anyway.

P.S.: I’ve got a theory lately that there are two kinds of stories: those that show characters getting the consequences they deserve, and those stories that are about story-form itself.

Time, memory, kids, and writing

I haven’t posted much lately. I’ve been waiting to feel really excited to blog, to have what I think of as “authentic energy” to create, so I’m not forcing myself to write, which tends not to lead to interesting prose. I haven’t yet felt excited to write. But I keep telling myself that I should be writing, so I’m blogging today just to break through the “shoulds” and the self-pressure. I don’t feel I have anything particularly compelling to say. But that’s OK, too. I’m skeptical of my motives when I do feel compelled to say something: maybe I’m just trying to convince others to think as I do, or maybe I want to really criticize somebody else’s idea (and it’s always easier to criticize someone else’s ideas than to figure out my own), or maybe I am non-humbly thinking that what I have to say will Change Your Life.

Eh.

Maybe writing-silence is OK. I’ve been writing my daily journals, but just not on this blog so much. It’s quite possible that I’m just too tired to be creative. Most summers, I am ready to write after a month of summer vacation. Not this year, though.

I could be satisfied with silence, but somehow, I’m not. I feel some self-directed pressure to post (along the lines of, “How can you not be working — this is your best time of year to work!”) … and blerg. I was on vacation last week — out of my normal routine — and so I wasn’t telling myself that I should be writing, and that lack of self-pressure was itself a vacation.

One idea on my mind lately has been why I prefer reading and writing nonfiction to fiction. I recently tried to explain this to a friend, but I couldn’t explain this well even to myself. But later, after looking at some videos I took of his young children’s antics, I had an idea why: Why should I pay attention to fictional worlds and characters when real people and places are so fascinating? And also fascinating are the ways we talk about, write about, photograph, and document real life — what I was wanting to video, what I thought about as I took video, what I thought about as I watched the videos days later (when I still remembered contexts), what I will think about as I watch these videos years from now, and how my friend’s kids may watch these videos years from now, when they will most likely not even remember themselves being the ages they are in the videos.

My friend’s kids surely are forming memories, even if they are not yet forming memories of themselves as the center of their own experiences, which experiences often (for me, anyway) take the form of a story. The oldest memories I now have seem to be from when I was about 4, or a little before, maybe. (When I say “oldest memories,” I mean that, when I think of watching my dad ride a bike away from home on the day my youngest brother was born, I must have been about age 4 when having the experience, because my brother is 4 years younger than I am. The memory itself, of course, is fragmentary but seems almost as clear and as fresh in mind as memories of experiences from a couple weeks ago.)

These youngsters, ages 1 and 2.5, also seem to have a different time sense from most adults, in that the kids seem very much involved in the present moment — they get fully absorbed in playing, or in eating, or in expressing discomfort, etc. The kids are unconsciously living “in the now” in the way adults have to more consciously follow the advice to “be present.” On the other hand, the kids’ present moments often involve urgently felt needs and demands, so it’s not exactly patient or mindful.

It feels banal to talk about time passing, to look back, to look forward — it’s all too boring to talk about how things used to be, and it’s pure fiction to think about how things could one day be. But, of course, what else is as confounding, as ever-present (it’s hard to avoid awkward language usage when writing about time), as having memories that contrast with what I’m presently seeing and what I’ll expect to see.

Perhaps my desire to be aware of, and keep my attention on, the present moment is part of why I am not drawn to fiction, which often asks readers to pull their attention out of the present reality and place it in the pure abstraction of story. I talked today to someone who enjoys reading novels, and he said he prefers the 700- or 800-page versions to shorter ones. I think that this person is someone who wants to get fully immersed in a story, caught up in a fictional world, a world of ideas. I suspect that, for readers like this, getting absorbed into a narrative is a way of letting go of their own realities for a while.

I don’t mean to say this is somehow ethically or socially wrong. But it’s personally wrong for me. When I got absorbed into the fiction I read, back in high school and college, I used to want to have my own life experiences be as deeply felt and as meaningful as those experiences I was reading about. I wished that I had a journey as exciting as Bilbo’s in “The Hobbit,” or that my adventures with friends were as exciting as Kerouac’s in “On The Road.” But at some point, I started to realize that the fictions I was reading were always unreal, were idealized — even realistic fiction is edited to be more intense than real life. Rather than spend time in an unreal narrative, I began wanting to see what real life is and how it can be interesting even without being structured by plots of murder and intrigue, etc.

It’s ridiculous, of course, to dismiss a whole category of art as big as fiction. I wince a little inside when someone tells me that he or she just is not interested in the poetry genre I enjoy. I think, You don’t know what you’re missing! Sure, a lot of poetry isn’t interesting, but some is really great! And I know fiction-lovers could say the same to me.

But I think I like poetry more than fiction now because poetry — because some poems — can surprise me more than fiction can. I feel so many fictions, whether short stories or novels or TV shows or movies, are just too familiar. I wanna be surprised. (I do still like comedy shows, because, I think, of the surprises of the jokes — jokes that aren’t surprising aren’t jokes). I wanna be shown something that has a unique form, something that tries something new.

My friend’s daughter, who’s two and a half years old, watches kids’ TV stories, hears books read to hear, hears her parents make up stories using her toys, and she even tells her own stories unprompted. Having never spent a lot of time with children her age, I was interested to see how much she is taking in stories and absorbing their structure. It probably is valuable, for anyone living within our contemporary culture, to be familiar with narrative, to be able to interpret narratives; even as someone who’s skeptical of fiction, I wouldn’t advise kids not to absorb and enjoy stories.

Presumably there are developmental markers for when kids learn stories, and for when they learn to question stories. And presumably I was told stories as a kid, stories whose structures I began absorbing before I even could form memories. My own childhood is lost to me, is itself an abstraction. Even the past I remember is inadequate. I wake up to find myself (in whatever condition I find myself) in each moment.

Foreshadowing, artifice, & being alive

Tree-breeze, Oct. 2012

Tree-breeze, Oct. 2012

A couple days ago, I posted a nonfictional account of things I saw and heard while sitting in a small-town McDonald’s restaurant. One of the things I saw was that there was a wasp outside, and then later, I saw a wasp inside, and my immediate comment was that seeing the wasp inside turned the earlier observation into “foreshadowing.”

One definition of “foreshadowing” is:

the use of indicative words/phrases and hints that set the stage for a story to unfold and give the reader a hint of something that is going to happen without revealing the story or spoiling the suspense. Foreshadowing is used to suggest an upcoming outcome to the story.

and Wikipedia’s entry describes “foreshadowing” as when

an author hints certain plot developments that perhaps will come to be later in the story … foreshadowing only hints at a possible outcome within the confinement of a narrative

And these definitions seem to imply that the author knows, or at least suspects, from the beginning of the telling of the story how it will end. For example, if I knew the wasp would do something later on, I’d better foreshadow that early in the narrative so that the wasp-event didn’t seem to come out of nowhere. Stories where the main characters are trying to rebuild their lives after battling mental illness, only to get killed in a car accident (one way of telling my father’s story), aren’t satisfying as stories.

But what I’m thinking today is this: I was writing as things were happening, in “real time,” and so when I first mentioned the wasp, I just saw it as a mildly interesting thing that was happening — I had no idea that I’d see it again later, or feel threatened by it. On first seeing the wasp, I had no idea it had any significance beyond its mere presence. So I mentioned it, but I wasn’t “foreshadowing” anything.

A larger point: everything I see around me, all the time, could possibly affect me. A neighbor kid’s ball could be batted into my windows, every car I see could careen into me, and my wife could leave me. This is what it means to be alive, as a mature adult (little kids may not have the experience to predict outcomes), is be aware of these possibilities. But of course, not everything is foreshadowing: not every batted ball will break a window, not every car ride ends in accident, and not every fight leads to divorce. In fact, to look at real life as having foreshadowing is to either be paranoid-obsessive, or to believe in prophesy/foretold fate, and neither seems a fun way to live.

So my point may be a modest one, that narratives are not the same as lived-experience. But it seems important to make this distinction between story and real experience clear. I spent years of my youth and young adulthood thinking that my real life was inadequate for lacking some of the qualities of the stories I read. My experiences paled in comparison with, say, Kerouac’s cross-country road trips. Yet, when I did take my own road trips, those two weren’t quite as compelling as those in On The Road. So I feel like learning the artificiality of storytelling has freed me from false, unrealizable expectations of my own life, and has helped me to enjoy my life as it comes to me. And even when I do tell stories about things I’ve experienced them, I tend to tell them in understated, under-dramatized ways. I generally don’t try to play up my experience as fascinating — I prefer writing about my thinking-life rather than my experienced-life. I don’t mean to condemn those who can interestingly mythologize their experiences, but I was glad to learn that I wasn’t an inadequate writer if I didn’t.

And so, as a writer, I enjoy writing descriptive nonfiction, of my own experiences, of places I visit, as it happens — en medias res — because, well, I live my life en medias res. I wake up to this current moment to find myself here — in this body, at my age, with my wife and job and family and etc. The narratives that result from my writing aren’t tight narratives — but they are interesting in ways (interesting to write, perhaps also to read) that tightly plotted and planned artificial narratives are not.

P.S. I suppose a similar analysis exists for symbolism in a story: that we find symbolic meanings in our own possessions, but we don’t make a big deal out of it. When my wife and I bought our first-and-only house after years of wanting to, we felt like we had finally “succeeded,” in a sense, and that we were finally adults (a meaning that shares in the cultural significance of home-ownership in our rural area, perhaps also in the contemporary U.S. generally). But seeing our house as a symbol of success and maturity isn’t something worth writing an essay (or even a blog post) about. Almost every single object in my house has some kind of meaning to it (and if it doesn’t, I probably throw it out) — thus, symbolism doesn’t seem all that interesting of a thing to think about, in some story-analysis ways.