I did it, Stephen. I bought Robert McKee’s Story. In hardback, even! This shows how much I trust you.
So far I think it’s great. Even though the book’s about screenwriting, it applies marvelously well to fiction of all kinds. One of the sections I found particularly lucid and well-said was a short, three page examination of didacticism and why it ruins stories. Over the years on the AML-list and in other discussions between Mormon artists, I’ve engaged in lots of discussions of didacticism. But I feel like McKee gets to the heart of the matter exceptionally well, so I’ll be quiet now and let him talk. He says:
“A note of caution: In creating the dimensions of your story’s ‘argument,’ take great care to build the power of both sides. Compose the scenes and sequences that contradict your final statement with as much truth and energy as those that reinforce it. . . . If, in a morality tale, you were to write your antagonist as an ignorant fool who more or less destroys himself, are we persuaded that good will prevail? . . . [It is in a] balanced telling [that] your victory of good over evil now rings with validity.”
This is why “affirmation” fiction so often comes off as cheesy or unearned or dissatisfying. When the bad guy is unredeemably bad, he loses power, and then the story loses tension. Of course good will prevail! There’s no other logical option.
And speaking of the AML-list, today on the list Scott Parkin said something really smart (as he often does). He said, “affirmation exists on both poles of the conversation [in Mormon literature]–either affirmation that all is well in Zion, or affirmation that Zion is a pointless fool’s paradise. I find both flavors to be prone to the same limited and limiting presentations. A revolving door story is (quite often) just another polemic, whether it’s revolving in or out.”
Whether it’s revolving in or out! Yes, Scott. Excellent metaphor. McKee agrees with you. He says:
“When your premise 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 [story] will become a thesis [piece], 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.”
I think often, as Mormon writers, we assume the injunction above applies mainly to those who are trying to “convert” a reader to our standard Mormon conversion message: that the Church is true and that you’re happier with it than without it. But it applies just as readily to those Mormons with other theses, those who use “fiction as a scalpel to cut out the cancers of [Mormon] society.” Those writers with a bone to pick can fall victim to didacticism just as easily as those with the goal of proving the truthfulness of the gospel. Both narratives are, in essence, conversion narratives.
So how do we avoid didacticism? Must a writer have no point of view, no convictions? McKee again:
“Make no mistake, no one can achieve excellence as a writer without being something of a philosopher and holding strong convictions. The trick is not to be a slave to your ideas, but to immerse yourself in life. For the proof of your vision is not how well you can assert your Controlling Idea [your thesis, your theme], but its victory over the enormously powerful forces that you array against it. . . .As a story develops, you must willingly entertain opposite, even repugnant ideas. The finest writers have dialectical, flexible minds that easily shift point of view. They see the positive, the negative, and all shades of irony, seeking the truth of these views honestly and convincingly.”
It seems to me that for Mormon fiction to succeed, Mormon writers, both “conservative” and “liberal,” need the ability and willingness to grant their antagonists humanity and power. In one example, the antagonist might be an attractive female non-member tempting a Mormon boy not to go on his mission and, instead, come live with her. In another example, the antagonist might be a rigid and conservative Mormon mother who won’t accept her son’s homosexuality. But in both cases, these characters must be complex, their motivations must be understandable, they can’t be “all bad.” Because if they are, what choice does our protagonist have? If there isn’t something compelling or even good about these characters, what will our hero be giving up if he rejects them? Where is the tension in a story where any logical human being would run away, fast, from a person who’s so obviously bad for him?
One last McKee quote: “A great work is a living metaphor that says, ‘Life is like this.’ The classics, down through the ages, give us not solutions but lucidity, not answers but poetic candor; they make inescapably clear the problems all generations must solve to be human.”
Exactly. And I’m curious: what “classic works” of fiction, Mormon or otherwise, do you think do a good job of saying “Life is like this”? Heck, you can even throw in some movies if you’d like. (I’ve been reading Story, so I have movies on the brain.)
Thanks again, Stephen, for the recommendation.