How to Be Properly Seduced by Stories

or

How to Properly Dismember People in Movies

"Storytelling is seduction." Stephen King 

A master storyteller is a master seducer who engineers a story to get their audience to react in the precise ways they intend us to react. This isn't a bad thing. In fact, we want to be seduced; to get sucked into an imaginary world where we begin to have real feelings and real opinions about fake people in fake circumstances. Without wandering down a trail of overanalysis and psychobabble, let me make 1 cautionary observation about the seduction of storytelling: in order for the seduction to "work," the writer needs you to affirm certain propositions. 

Saving the Cat:

For instance, many movies have what hollywood calls a "save the cat" scene. This strategic scene demonstrates the protagonist doing something "likeable" so that the audience will immediately care for the character. If the audience doesn't care about the protagonist, then seduction is not possible. In order for the audience to feel concern and anxiety about a character having terminal lung cancer, the audience must first accept the proposition: "I like this character."   
It is at this point in the storytelling experience, the point where the audience is asked to accept propositions, that the audience is most vulnerable. Good seducers, in an effort to get their desired reaction, can manipulate us into accepting propositions without us knowing we've accepted them. Perhaps a good principle for us in life is to always be aware of what we are endorsing as true and what we are rejecting as false. It seems to me that ambiguity in in one's own judgements will always-and-eventually lead to moral ambiguity in life. 

Why 'Breaking Bad' is Bad:

Barbara and I started watching the show Breaking Bad last night. We watched the pilot and episode 1. The show is about a chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Since he is going to die, and he is having financial problems, he begins cooking and selling meth. Walter White, the protagonist, is very likable and relatable: an underpaid teacher ("check") who, because of financial struggles ("check"), works an extra job ("check") for a belittling employer ("check"), and who has a son with cerebral palsy ("check"), and who finds out he has terminal cancer ("check"). Yes, we like and care for this protagonist very much. Now that we like the protagonist so much, we are putty in the storytellers hands. 

So far Breaking Bad is what I would call a "sin acceptance" scam. Basically, the scam is to get the audience to approve of increasingly heinous acts of sin and violence. So, yes, cooking meth is wrong, but "under these circumstances it is not so bad." Yes selling meth is wrong, but "since he only has a short time to live and is having money problems and is generally a good guy, it is not so bad." Once we have accepted propositions of this sort, then murdering other drug dealers is "not so bad" because that is "part of the drug selling world," which we have already approved of "under these circumstances."  We may even go a step further in our delusion and say, "that is just real life." 

When Violence is NOT Bad:

Notice, when you watch Coen brothers movies, or even in shows like Madmen, we are never asked to accept sin and violence as "okay under these circumstances." In these stories people choose violence, and they choose to commit sins, but we are not expected to accept it as "okay." In these stories we are able to reject the character's behavior, we are even able to regret a character's decision, but we are not so easily able to accept their sinful behaviors as "okay under these circumstances" because the storytellers do not try to justify the behaviors. People sin in these stories because they give into the temptation to do so. People sin in these stories because it is an easy way to get what they want. Violence, lust, murder, stealing... all happen in these stories in the same way it happens in life: people fail. Shows like Breaking Bad manipulate us into thinking that these moments of violence and evil are a twisted form of success. They aren't. They are failures. Good stories portray them as such. Bad stories portray them as something else. 

Violence in Breaking Bad versus violence in Coen Brothers movies, like No Country for Old Men and Fargo or Madmen

Does it Matter?

If we do not judge something as "wrong" we can never be redeemed from it. This is why confession is so sweet and powerful: only when we identify evil within ourselves can we turn from it. We'll never turn from something that is "okay under these circumstances."

If we do not judge something as wrong we can ever learn and grow from it. Only when something is acknowledged as "wrong" do we ever seek to make changes.  People who justify their bad behavior never have a compulsion to grow beyond their bad behavior.  

Sin and violence, no matter how heinous, can enrich a character and can add great meaning to a story. Of course, violence can also be senseless and meaningless (horror movies often fit this category).  I do not think such "senseless and meaningless" violence is all that damaging on a personal level.  In fact, the dirty little secret about violence is that it is all "senseless and meaningless." But what is damaging, and far worse than "senseless and meaningless," are stories that manipulate us into making dumb moral judgements about a character or behavior; stories that compel us to accept as "okay" behaviors that are not "okay."  It can be good to be seduced by a storyteller. It is never good to be used by a storyteller.  

  • CATEGORY: creativity and related futility

  • 12-29-2012

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