“Anything worth saying is unsayable. That’s why we tell stories. Because life is too complicated to be explained any other way.” —Professor Peter Stine
Back in November, I said I was beginning a loosely-connected series of posts, which I didn’t follow up on until March, and I’m finally (sort of) wrapping up now, a month and a half later.
Three posts in six months. Slow and steady wins the race, right?
When I started, I acknowledged that I was beginning in a bit of an odd place, and, though I didn’t acknowledge it, I think I probably continued to an odd place, as well. In the English classes I teach, one of the concepts my fellow teachers and I try to drive home to our students is the “So what?” principle. If someone were to reader your thesis and their first question is “So what?” you probably need to choose a new thesis. So, if the thesis for my first two pieces was “These are two things I saw that didn’t tell very good stories,” I would agree that “so what?” would be an understandable response. So two stories were told poorly, why should anybody care?
Because, quite simply, the stories we tell (and the way we tell them) are very important.
And that’s a truth that’s been undermined in American society.
That sounds extreme, but I don’t mean it in the same way that, say, a Fox News anchor would say Obama is undermining our freedoms. I don’t think anyone is actively trying to make people believe that story doesn’t matter. But as a culture, we’ve largely forgotten the idea that it does, and are resistant to considering this idea.
Consider a few statistics. 90 million US citizens, 30% of the population, currently are functionally illiterate. That makes up almost one in every three people that you meet.
Similarly, in order to be considered an “avid reader,” a person only needs to read two books in a year. On average that comes down to roughly 30 minutes a week. Is there any other hobby that this would be true of? No gym is designed for someone who might log 26 hours in it over the course of a year. TV shows don’t need to fight over viewers who can only make time for one of them every other week.
But that’s the market that any writer is forced to target.
This is especially important, because the written medium can be especially influential. Reading a story, unlike nearly any other activity, causes you to enter into the mind of another person, to see the world from his or her perspective. However, stories can influence us through a number of media. Even though reading is influential by its very nature, other media, such as film, can be influential through the use of powerful images or music, and compelling characters and conflicts.
And as a counter example to all that, take this year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, a movie that is blatantly, aggressively uninterested in telling a story.
To put it succinctly, the central conflict of Age of Ultron is caused by Tony Stark messing with powers he’s too arrogant to realize are beyond him. He creates the main villain by putting a super A.I. in a robot body. And then he defeats the main villain by… putting a super A.I. in a robot body.
What, exactly, is meant to be accomplish in that? From a storytelling perspective? A character perspective? A thematic perspective? As someone much quippier than I has already quipped, what has Stark learned except to push the “NOT a genocidal monster” button this time around? For that matter, does any character in this film have anything approaching an arc? What does this film have to offer to our cultural conversation beyond robots and punching?
Not a damn thing. And God help us if we don’t love it for that. We love it so much that it’s the highest-grossing movie in the country this year, and one of the best reviewed to boot. It’s a bit uncommon to see critics and audiences agree. It’s a bit unsettling to see them agree on this.
By buying this schlock again and again, as a culture we’re telling our story tellers that this is all we want. That we don’t need to see characters struggle or learn anything. We don’t need growth. All we need are explosions and one-liners.
This matters. This isn’t me trying to be smarter than a comic book movie. I love silly comic book movies. But we need stories, even the silly ones, to take risks. To challenge their characters, and consequently their audience. To pose bold questions that don’t have pat answers. To push us to consider a viewpoint other than our own.
Humans need stories. If we didn’t, why would they be such an important part of every culture in written history? And stories impact people. If that weren’t the case, why did Uncle Tom’s Cabin inspire the Civil War? The proof is all throughout history. Cultures are always reflected in and defined by the stories they tell.
But the truth of this should be even more obvious when approached from a Christian perspective. Any number of examples could be used here, but quite possibly the most noteworthy comes from the story of David and Bathsheba. After David has impregnated Bathsheba, had her husband murdered, and taken her as his wife, he receives a visit from the prophet Nathan, who’s been sent to convict David of his sin. Reading the chapter, the natural expectation is for Nathan to lay the holy judgment of God on David’s head, which he does… but in an unexpected way. Instead of a sermon a la Jonathan Edwards, what we get is a story about sheep.
And yet, that story drives Nathan’s point home far more effectively than any argument, threat, or curse ever could. Just as Stowe did with her story, or Harper Lee and Mark Twain in theirs. Or even contemporary writers like Collins and Green, whose impact on culture has been undeniable in the short term.
This may seem far removed from where I started, with video game nerds in high school and, well, video game nerds in virtual reality. But I finished watching those series shortly after hearing Gary Schmidt deliver an explanation of the importance of story, and the three topics became intertwined in my mind. As he showed, stories need to be told, and they deserve to be told well.
And if there’s any doubt left as to the importance of story, I think one of Schmidt’s anecdotes can lay it to rest. He recently was asked to lead a writing workshop for teens in Michigan, and was warned before beginning that one of the kids had recently lost his father, who had taken his own life. During the workshop, Schmidt noticed this kid writing with more fire and passion than anyone in the room.
He was writing a story about a boy, who was lost and alone. He was looking for his father, but his father had disappeared. Everywhere he went, the boy was surrounded by monsters, “the Uglies,” and he didn’t know what to do or where to go.
But everything was going to be all right. Because his father had left him a magic sword. All he had to do was find it, and he could make all the monsters go away.
And I’m just going to let that thought hang there. Because I have no way to follow that up.