Back after Rep. Giffords was shot in January, I did some blogging about storytelling from that, riffing off some Twitter discussion among Jesse Stern and NCIS fans. In short, there’s the possibility of preaching when writing about big issues, but there also are ways to tell stories that let those issues drive authentic storytelling. “To Kill A Mockingbird,” probably my favorite book ever, is one of the latter. Most of the former turn me off before I get far enough in to even tell you what it’s about.
The discussion with Jesse was the third in a series of posts I nicknamed Storytelling with Big Issues, which had started after the DADT repeal vote in December. In the process of writing those, I found an article by a professor I had in college looking at how Mark Twain started to shift too much toward the big-picture look, at the expense of the storytelling that marked “Huck Finn” and other novels. “Huck Finn,” of course, tackles some issues so big that even today it is one of the most-commonly banned books in the U.S. But Twain did it the right way, by putting specific characters in a situation in a particular context dictated by history and then let them act.
To steal from the Giffords blog post:
“And Jesse came back with a similar response: “While I’m all for smuggling meaning, depth of character and complex ideas into entertainment programs, it’s the wrong platform for preaching.” He’s right.
But saying that then gets back to my original post debating where the line is between preaching and storytelling, and how you stay on the right side of that. Because the minute you waver across the line, it destroys the impact of your story because everybody’s focused on the message. Using Faith as the example again, many of the complaints were about the choice to tell that story in the Christmas episode. So, let’s look at that.
Did the plot require it to be Christmastime? Not the case piece of it, which was the controversial part. And the case wasn’t hugely connected to the Gibbs-Jackson subplot, which was the piece that really was both big and Christmassy. Did it echo the father-son bits? Yes, it did. But there have been many other father-son or father-daughter episodes in the series that didn’t require this type of controversial case. And the bigger question: Would the case have been less controversial if it had been in a regular episode, not the Christmas one?
Heck if I know. I’m sure there are a portion of the people who were upset who would have been OK with it in a non-holiday episode. I’m equally sure, after years of reading comments on our newspaper forums, that if the holiday piece wasn’t there, some would have found another aspect to take issue with to hide their disagreement with the general idea in the story. The impression I get from the commentary was that writer Gary Glasberg intended to tackle that topic. And, again returning to the two earlier posts discussing this, I think that’s generally where trouble starts.
Jesse’s got a good dichotomy here: Meaning, depth of character and complex ideas are good things. They help us tell better stories. When we resist the easy way out, when we tackle the things that don’t have easy answers and let the difficulty in wrestling with the ideas drive the story, we can get good storytelling. When we go in planning to use the story to make a point, I think that’s when we’re preaching. When we have the end in mind, it can be difficult to avoid tinkering with the means to get there to make our point stronger. And every time we do, we weaken the case for it.”
My journalism background makes accuracy important for me as a writer, even in fiction. The Thrown Out stories are all set in different time periods, mostly because I was looking at these characters at specific points in time before the present-day events that will unfold in Fate’s Arrow and Better the Devil. In all cases, the setting was determined by the age of a specific character relative to the present — Ellie, Chris, Becca and Tim, respectively. From there, reality (to steal an Andrew Greeley phrase, in God’s world, not mine) dictated some of the context and events.
To tell these stories, to be true to the characters, means dealing with some of these issues. As a writer, they just naturally flow into the telling of the tale. This is reality, these are the characters; the combination will drive the story as events unfold. As I get down to the final crunch on Thrown Out, one element that still needed drafting was short pieces Kyrie had wanted between each story, author’s notes of a sort. Yesterday morning, I sat down to draft and realized that each story, behind the storytelling, has a theme. Each story is different; each theme is different. It’s weird to me to step back and see what I wrote into the stories without meaning to. I’ll be eager to see in two weeks what readers think about the stories — and if they agree that this was a case of storytelling rather than preaching.
My favorite books that tackle big issues well are Mockingbird and Huck Finn. And the best example I can name of a book that sets out to tackle a big issue and succeeds with good storytelling is Nat Hentoff’s “The Day They Came to Arrest the Book.” What’s your favorite big-issue book?