Violence and story, part 2

Photography of Lascaux animal painting {| cell...

In writing my last blog post and reading all of your thoughtful comments, I feel that there is a lot more to explore about this topic.

For me, the question isn’t whether or not there should be violence in stories. It has been a part of story since the beginning. Looking at ancient cave paintings like those at Lascaux, I could imagine that some of the first stories ever told probably involved hunting animals and killing them.

Even children, left to their own devices, add a lot of violence to their imagined tales. In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall cites a scholar who studied children’s play patterns. He found that “the typical actions in orally told stories by young children include being lost, being stolen, being bitten, dying, being stepped on, being angry, calling the police, running away or falling down.  In their stories they portray a world of great flux, anarchy, and disaster.”

So if violence is somehow a part of our human nature, and inherent in our stories, the question for me is “why?”

“Fiction is usually seen as escapist entertainment,” writes Mr. Gottschall. But as he goes on to point out, if that were the case, “we’d expect stories to be mainly about pleasurable wish fulfillment” where nothing would go wrong.  That, of course, is not the case, as most of the popular “escapist entertainment” is full of violent acts. And if there were a story without any difficulty or struggle for the hero, it would not interest the reader (or viewer) because nothing would have happened.  “If there is no knotty problem, there is no story,” says Gottschall.

Stories are about trouble — trouble that happens to a character. And we vicariously live through that character and root for him or her to overcome those troubles and find success. This is the “happily ever after” part of the story. But if that happy ending isn’t earned, if the hero hasn’t suffered “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as Hamlet said, then the audience won’t enjoy the story.

There are a lot of books about how to write screenplays and novels. I’ve read my fair share. Some have been helpful, some not so much. But the one thing they all seem to agree on is that conflict is necessary in a story. If there’s no conflict, the hero has no way to be tested. No test, and the hero hasn’t earned their success or happiness.

As Lisa Cron writes in Wired for Story, “Story is about change, which results only from unavoidable conflict.” In our everyday life, we usually go out of our way to avoid change and conflict. They’re uncomfortable and difficult, and “In real life we want conflict to resolve right now, this very minute; in a story we want conflict to drag out, ratcheting ever upward, for as deliciously long as humanly possible.”

And what’s the one, sure-fire way to show conflict? Something violent happening to someone. Certainly this isn’t the only way. There are plenty of books and movies where characters don’t go to the extreme of shooting guns, or stabbing, or killing. But I would argue that even in the most innocent of stories, there are allusions to violence or death. Even in Elf, the absurd Will Ferrell Christmas flick, there is a scene where Buddy stands on a bridge, contemplating suicide.

So perhaps the violence issue can be reframed. I don’t think it’s possible or necessary to rid violence from stories. And what’s acceptable or not will always be debatable, depending on the venue in which the story is presented. But I do think storytellers have a responsibility to keep their intended audience in mind when they add violence to stories and know when to say enough is enough. Or to make sure the violence and conflict serves the purpose of the story and isn’t just there for amusement.

But no matter who the audience is, we all want the heros of our stories to show us what it means to suffer and persevere, so that we can be inspired to overcome conflict in our own lives.

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Can old stories help us navigate the future?

Sketchnotes for "The Great Cauldron of St...

Sketchnotes for “The Great Cauldron of Story” with Maria Tatar (Photo credit: On Being)

In this fascinating interview with Krista Tippett, Maria Tatar, a professor Germanic languages and literature at Harvard, talks about fairy tales and their influence and impact on our modern culture.  For example, there are the new adaptations of Snow White and shows like Grimm and Once. But she also points out that even the Kardashians and Sex and the City are versions of Cinderella.

Have these old myths and tales always been a large part of the culture, or is this a new trend?  Tatar talks about how we’re all navigating new territory and that there is a comfort in returning to these familiar stories to help us understand our world.

It makes sense to me, though I’m not sure that this is an entirely new trend. Myths and fairytales have always been part of the modern, popular culture, whether it was through Superman and comic books, or Star Wars in the 80’s.

But there are a couple reasons why these “old” stories might be more pervasive now.

First, the types of and platforms for entertainment have grown. Programmers and studios have so many more hours to fill, that numbers-wise, it makes sense that more fairytale-based stories are out there.

Also, with visual effects being so popular and of such a high quality, creatures and locations that a reader could only imagine before are now being pulled off the page and brought to life in a very convincing way. I think that’s why we’re seeing fairytale movies like Alice and Wonderland, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Oz-related stories being released every few months. Not to mention the numerous superhero movies.

But what are these old tales teaching us about our modern world? And can they really help us navigate our complex, global society? After all, these were tales that were told around campfires within small tribes, that had no concept of cel phones, computers, and space travel.

What if these stories aren’t about decoding our external world, necessarily, but our internal worlds? They offer us ways to understand and deal with fear, heartbreak, and disappointment — emotions that are universal and timeless.

And as Tatar suggests, in a world that is in constant flux, we find comfort in the familiar. We humans are kind of averse to change, so if a story will help moor us during the tumultuous waves of live, it’s not surprising that we welcome it.

Perhaps if there is a resurgence in the popularity of fantasy and fairytales, it speaks less to economics and special effects, and more to the fact that people are looking for meaning and a “happily ever after.” For a while now, there has been a backlash to the “hollywood ending” and the “happily ever after” because it’s too easy or too saccharine. But the opposite hasn’t helped stories thrive or find larger audiences. In recent years I’ve noticed a lot of shows and movies with cynical endings, hopeless outcomes, and characters who seems to have learned nothing and are no better off than at the start of their tale.

I am definitely suspicious of stories that are tied up too neatly at the end, but I also like to see a glimmer of hope and to feel that things can get better. That people can change.

I don’t need every one of the stories I read to have a totally happy ending, but I do like to see a character who has gone through tests and trials come out the other end in one piece, a little happier and healthier.

Because isn’t that what we want in our own lives?