I’ve been thinking about stories a lot lately. In part, that’s because I’m writing a book, and you can’t not think about storytelling when you’re doing that. (I can’t, anyway.) How to effectively and entertainingly communicate thoughts, ideas, and the nuance of human-ness: these aren’t as simple as putting words on the page. It takes thought and loving craftsmanship to get the words to say what you mean.
It’s more than storytelling, though. Stories themselves are a huge part of how we interact with the world. My post complaining of a lack of story in the recent Star Wars trailer has become the most popular thing I’ve ever put out on Google+. Whether you agree with me or not about the trailer, it seems that I’ve hit on something that helps people explain their ambivalence towards this hotly-anticipated cinema event. It’s just a tease: there’s nothing we can understand. There’s no story.
Swooping spaceships and lightsabers with quillions are cool to see, but they speak only to our sense of wonder. This is a magical feeling to be sure, and the creators of the film deserve applause for their dynamic cinematography and new ideas. But after the wonder fades, there’s nothing left. For those who truly care about the franchise, there is curiosity - also powerful! - but the trailer by itself doesn’t spark that curiosity. They are curious because they love the series already. They love not because of swooping spaceships, but because of the wonderful stories that came before.
Star Wars can afford to get lazy, because people already care, so they will be curious. But it’s laziness that produced that teaser trailer without telling us what any of it means. We already have a relationship with Star Wars, and that means we see everything through the lens of that relationship. Star Wars already has meaning, so the editors who cut that trailer apparently didn’t feel the need to do more than rest on the laurels of those who’d enchanted us before. They didn’t need to give us meaning. They didn’t need to tell a story.
We understand the world through stories. “Cop attacked without provocation by violent black youth; shoots in self defense” is a very different narrative than “cop provokes powerless teen into an altercation, panics when he meets unexpected resistance, executes the unarmed boy, and lies about it to cover his own ass.” Neither of these stories likely captures the whole truth of what happened between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, but we’ve all told ourselves some variant on them. We need the story to make sense of the tragedy. It tells us about who was right and who was wrong, when all we can honestly say about the multitude of images with which we’ve been bombarded is who is dead and who is not. The story matters to us, because it gives meaning. If the demonstrators in Ferguson and elsewhere believed the first one, they’d stay home. If the prosecutor in Feguson believed the second one, Wilson would have been indicted.
Unless, of course, there was another narrative in play. Something like, “my beloved father, a police officer, was murdered by a black man in the line of duty, and it would dishonor his memory for me to take the side of another black man against a police officer.” That would be a hard narrative to ignore, no matter what Robert McCullough believed about the facts of the case. How could he stand with a morally-questionable stranger over his own father?
Just for a moment, let yourself think about that story. Think about what it would mean to you, if it had been your father. How that would have shaped your life. How that would have given a special meaning to every time you were able to show that a police officer was on the side of the angels - on your side - when he made the terrible decision to take another’s life. Every time, you’d be telling your dad one last time that you loved him.
What wouldn’t we do to get a chance to say that, just one last time, to someone we’d lost?
This doesn’t make it any less despicable, if McCullough did what it seems that he did, and gave special treatment to Wilson’s rather weak story. But it illustrates my point: stories matter. They can mean the difference between death (“young black men are violent and carry guns”) and life (“that white teen in a hoodie is a good kid at heart”). They can mean the difference between justice (“what story do I believe?”) and injustice (“what story do I want to believe?”). They can tell girls that the only thing in their lives that matters is whether or not they look like a supermodel, or they can tell boys that they don’t have to listen when she says she’s not interested, because if only you can make her understand how you feel, she will feel the same way. They can tell us that husbands are clueless idiots and that women should settle for bumbling fools, because it’s not like they will ever find a mate worthy of their affection before their physical charms fade, and at that point even the idiots won’t want them because all men are shallow.
Stories can really fuck us up, if we let them.
That’s why it matters to me when I see crap stories out there, clogging up our brains, and that’s why I’m disappointed when storytellers don’t even bother. Because the right story at the right time can give you a tale that you will love for the rest of your life, even if the prequels suck. The right story can tell you why lightning arcs down from the sky, or that the people you’ve lost are in a better place. The truth of a story helps us believe it, but truth isn’t what matters. Stories matter.
May the stories be with you.