Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Telling Stories

Obama, and anyone else even the tiniest bit left of center, have had a tough time lately. Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts destroyed the Democrats’ so-called super-majority in the Senate putting already tenuous health care reform legislation on life support. So much for Ted Kennedy’s legacy. Then the Supreme Court decided that corporations, being the immortal fictitious superpersons that they are, are entitled to as much free speech as they can buy. Given the size of some of their coffers that’s quite a lot. Much more than Joe the Plumber or Betty the Waitress could afford.

I’m not exactly sure what those five Supreme Court justices were thinking, but the reasons for Scott Brown’s victory have been analyzed to death. Basically, Brown won because he told a better story while his lackluster opponent didn’t bother to tell a story at all. He presented himself as a man of the people, who drove an old pickup truck, who could show those corrupt do-nothing Washington insiders a thing or two. He promised to reign in government spending, lower taxes and kill the health care reform bill. Somehow this would produce jobs and security for everyone. Now you might argue that doesn’t make any sense, but Brown’s campaign told a story that made it feel right and people tend to vote with their guts more than their heads.

Progressives lack a cohesive and, more importantly, a compelling story. We tend to think speaking truth to power means providing people with the facts. If we only make the right information available, people will have no choice but to come to the logical and right conclusion. But speaking truth to power is more than spewing data; it is speaking the truth in a way people will hear it. They hear things like “public option” and fall asleep, but tell them you’re going to take away their “freedoms” and their ears perk up and their blood starts boiling.

How might progressives learn to tell better stories? For one thing, don’t be snobs. It’s amazing to me how many writers refuse to read some authors like Dan Brown or John Grisham on general principle. Well, why the hell not? It’s what people on the bus are reading. Don’t you want to be read?

The point is not to copy these authors word for word, or to flood the world with substandard literature (after all some stuff is popular because it’s actually good) but to discern the “rules” for constructing an engaging narrative for a general audience. People like to read about a black and white world. They like to read about people whose lives are more exciting than their own. They like snappy dialog without a whole lot of description. They like humor; they like pathos. They like good to triumph. They like a happy — or at least a fully resolved —ending.

More lessons in popular storycraft can be learned from watching top-rated TV shows, listening to the lyrics of country songs, etc. This is what holds peoples’ attention. Believe me, more people thought about the morality of torture watching Jack Bauer’s dark night of the soul on the last season of 24 than did reading Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side.

Watch and listen with an open mind — and learn the language that appeals to the masses. I once explained taxes to one of my more conservative colleagues in terms of tithing — and he got it. But I never would have come up with that analogy if I hadn’t taken the time to find out what tithing was.

Secondly, don’t be afraid to appeal to people’s emotions, specifically anger and fear. Anger and fear are mind killers for sure, but they also run deeper than blood. Many PSAs against health care reform play to people’s fear of change. You might not be able to keep your doctor. You will be forced to change health plans. You will lose what little security you have. Very few ads have spoken to the fear of having no health insurance at all. What if you break your arm, can’t pay rent for a couple of months and lose your apartment? What if you lose your job and your health insurance and you have Type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure? What if you get cancer (Delaware still has one of the highest cancer rates in the nation) and lose your job and insurance? Should you be so afraid in the world’s lone superpower? Should you be so fearful in a nation that bills itself as the greatest country on earth?

See? Sure beats talking about the “public option.”


  1. Well, Franetta, you know I agree. But one question I don’t have completely answered is how we build a story that builds solidarity, the lifeblood of any effective movement for social change. Can we tithe outside of church, the government, or —for that matter—business? Can we tithe to civil society, if not with funds, at least with solidarity? How can the center hold?

  2. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

  3. The "24" - "The Dark Side" comparison is an apt one, but it lays bare a problem in using storytelling to effectively push the progressive agenda: The progressive agenda cannot be easily put into sound bites, low-cut cocktail dresses and tweets. Not that it's not worth trying, but attracting those febrile young minds without bells and whistles is pretty much a lost cause.

    On a somewhat related matter, I'll tell you exactly what those five Supreme Court justices were thinking: They were thinking that the sooner and more thoroughly that America becomes a corporatocracy the better. The decision allowing corporations to buy elections easily was the worst since the Dred Scott decision in 1857.

  4. Shaun,
    Personally, I'm thinking some of the pieces will start to come together once civil society, which includes artists, NGOs, unions - all the voluntary groups not under compulsion from government or market - begin to share a common vision based on opposition to Babylon and solidarity with each other.
    I know what you're thinkin': "stuck in the 60s." You bet!

  5. I think I know what's just below the surface of Franetta's posting. I think as progressively-minded authors and poets, we need not be afraid of writing good literary propaganda. This is what the right wing is doing all the time and we can see the effects. We need to get away from being what the right wingers accuse many of us of being, of appearing "elitist." Many of my literary colleagues have accused me of writing propaganda over the years. It's an accusation I proudly accept. But good propaganda does have its effect, and good propaganda is not easy to write. Just try it. You'll see. And you can also write good literary propaganda as well as good poetry for poetry's sake. Pablo Neruda is a good role model who comes to mind. We shouldn't be afraid of the ghost of Goebbels. Ghosts can only scare you if you're already afraid. They really can't hurt you. But the truth will set you free—or at least begin the process.

  6. The "24" - "The Dark Side" comparison is an apt one, but it lays bare a problem in using storytelling to effectively push the progressive agenda: The progressive agenda cannot be easily put into sound bites, low-cut cocktail dresses and tweets. Not that it's not worth trying, but attracting those febrile young minds without bells and whistles is pretty much a lost cause.

    Yes, that does present an artistic challenge, but usually if you stick to no more than one or two issues per story, novel, script, etc., you can create something that is artistically viable and gets the message across. Otherwise you end up with the Tyler Perry effect: the message overshadows the story because you're trying to cover too much ground at once. (Although Perry has a huge following, so maybe that doesn't matter as much as I think.)

    Last season's "24" wasn't particularly subtle, but it did raise the question for a general audience -- which is something. Not surprisingly "24" does come down on the side of torture in extreme cases. But the torturer pays an extraordinary price for his deeds.

  7. Now, a couple things occur to me as a willing propagandist. First, I’m not much good at ingénues pursued below decks by bad guys on a burning ship, so I might not be so good at keeping the reader’s attention while I sneak in a lesson. The right, on the other hand, can always access the old brain, that deep and not very reflective bit of lizard brain that generalizes the stripes on a natural enemy and provokes fight or flight. Stripes or skin color or gender or religion, anything that distinguishes the other, can be armed with a gun, a bomb, an agenda, or a kafeeyah, and the reader’s heart is set a-flutter. What artistry will restore the humanity’s neo-cortex?