Small object of desire #11 – Story (Drama)

One of my most enduring memories comes from the day writer and literary icon Kurt Vonnegut came to give a storytelling, life and everything lecture at the university I was attending. 

Just as an aside – the word ‘icon’ is one of the most over-used, no, abused words in the English language. These days it’s foisted on us by the media and PR agencies in reference to any two-bit celebrity soaking up their alloted 15 minutes in the limelight. 

But I digress. Back to Kurt Vonnegut and Story. 

First of all, there I was sitting 2 rows away from the man who wrote a book, Slaughterhouse Five, that I found hugely inspiring when I read it as a teenager. I could almost reach out and stroke his whiskers. 

Then, what he had to say about storytelling and why we need drama in our lives was funny, enlightening and, not to overstate the case, genius. It blew wide my preconceptions about what storytelling is wide open. I’ll try and paraphrase the essence of his theory here. 

He introduced his lecture by saying: People have been hearing fantastic stories since time began. The problem is, they think life is supposed to be like the stories. Let’s look at a few examples.

He drew an empty graph on the board:

and explained that time moves from left to right and happiness from bottom to top. Then he said, “let’s look at a very common story arc. The story of Cinderella.”

It starts with her terrible life – the wicked stepmother, the ugly sisters, the cleaning out of the cinders. Then she gets an invitation to the ball. Wow, things are looking up! Her fairy godmother turns up and provides the dress, coach and shoes (let’s not forget the shoes!) she needs to go to the ball. Much, much better! She goes to the ball and gets to dance with the prince. Her happiness quotient is definitely on the up and up now!

But then the clock strikes midnight. She has to go. Back down the graph towards misery and scrubbing fireplaces but it’s not quite as bad as before because she’s had this life-affirming experience. Then wonder of wonders, the prince finds her, weds her and they live happily ever after. The happiness quotient is off the scale! And the graph looked like this:

He said: People LOVE that story! This story arc has been written a thousand times in a thousand tales. And because of it, people think their lives are supposed to be like this.

Then he wiped the board clean and said: “Now let’s look at another popular story arc: the disaster.”

Ordinary day in an ordinary town. Things are carrying on in their normal way then something awful happens! A child falls down a well! The whole town gathers to try and save her. Old tensions threaten to boil over but this tragedy is bigger than the quibbles between neighbours. Old quarrels are resolved as they band together to save the girl. They do and all’s well that ends well. But this time, they can look forward to better relationships with their fellow townsfolk. 

The graph looked like this:

He said: People LOVE that story! This story arc has been written a thousand times in a thousand tales. And because of it, people think their lives are supposed to be like this.

But…real life tends to look like this:

Most people’s lives don’t veer very far away from this model. Sure, there are ups and downs but nothing that will be recounted for thousands of years. Vonnegut said:

But because we grew up surrounded by big dramatic story arcs in books and movies, we think our lives are supposed to be filled with huge ups and downs! So people pretend there is drama where there is none.

In other words, we tend to want to create drama in our lives. It’s why we watch boxing matches – for the drama of watching two men pummel each other, sometimes to the death. It’s why we go to gigs in massive arenas – to get that religious feeling of being close to God. And so on.

I would argue that most of us don’t want our lives to be overly dramatic. Thankfully, that’s what stories are for. The problem is a lot of the time authors of stories (and for the sake of argument I’m including ALL mediums of storytelling in this round up) don’t give us what we want. They don’t understand the nature of drama. We’ve all seen and heard crappy, formulaic films, songs, even news reports. 

I say: if you’re going to beg my attention for 3 minutes (song), 2 hours (film) or a few weeks (a novel) please give me drama, I beg you. I might not want it in my life but I sure do love it in my stories. That’s exactly what Mr. Vonnegut gave me when I gave up an hour of my life to go and hear his lecture. 

Entertain me or be damned!





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