This weekend we watched a movie with the children. My children are great fun to watch movies with, because they are interested in the process of how stories work. So, I can stop the movie and talk to them about why something happened in the story and what result is expected.
For instance, we were watching Hotel For Dogs. In the opening, a dog longs for a man’s hotdog. The man sees this and teases the dog, offering the hot dog and yanking it away. The man is distracted, and the dog gets the dog. (That was a fun phrase to write.)
We explained to the kids that stories for children operate around an unspoken morality. The dog wanting something that is not his—wrong. If the dog had taken the hotdog at this point, he would have been in the wrong. The man teasing the dog—more wrong. Now, when the dog gets the hotdog, the viewer is on his side.
But when we say “moral” and “wrong” we are not talking about laws, courts, and sins. We are talking about something much more important to the watching/reading public.
The morality of story is not a matter of allegories or morality tales, meant to instruct the humble. But rather, the laws of storytelling by which one grabs or fails to grab the audience’s sympathy, to get the audience on the side of your character.
Not a feel-good agenda, but a relentless master before whom all storytellers must bow.
A hungry dog…many people sympathize. But it the dog steals a man’s lunch, some viewers lose sympathy. If the man is shown to be mean, sympathy for the dog increases a hundred fold. Now, we’re all on his side when he gets away with his delicious treat.
All of us? No. Of course not. Nothing can gain everyone’s sympathy. Some people just will not like a dog, no matter what you have him do. Some people are in a contrary mood, and what normally might gain favor just annoys them…but in this case, the targeted audience was children. Very few children are so jaded they can’t enjoy a good story about a dog.
The morality of stories has a relentless logic to it, a logic that cannot be changed by politics or personal persuasions. It just is what it is. However, the moment you understand it, you can make it work for you, get it to do almost anything…like make children sympathetic to a dog that steals a man’s lunch.
In fact, once you understand what makes a character sympathetic, you can make even really unsavory characters sympathetic…just by making sure that, to the audience, their side seems justified.
Some people complain about sculpting a plot around the logic of the morality of stories. They feel it will make the story too predictable. There are several answers to this:
One: Not to children. They’ve never seen it before. But they do have a sense of right and wrong. This sense allows their sympathies to be engaged, even if they don’t understand why.
Two: Predictability can be enjoyable. A romance reader wants the story to end happily. A child wants a fairytale to turn out the way he expects. Yet, often the audience wants to see bad punished, good triumph, and little dogs run off with grown men’s hotdogs.
Three: Following the logic of the morality of story is not the same as anticipating the outcome of the plot. Writers have tremendous leeway with how they use the elements that make up the fundamental building blocks of stories. As I said above, once they understand the rationale, they can make nearly anything sympathetic.
Four: An author can choose not to stick with the “formula”. Does this mean their story will suck? Not at all! It just means that the audience, however large, will be smaller than it might have been. But, they can do a better job if they are aware of the price they are paying than if they do not.
One example is Shrek. The authors there turned fairytales on their head…but they still followed the laws of making characters sympathetic to make their ogre anti-hero appealing. (Everyone sympathizes with a grumpy guy having his peace invaded. ;-)
Another example is in my novel, Prospero Lost. The main character, Miranda, is not sympathetic. She is cool and distant, and some readers do not like her because of this. If I had followed more closely the logic of how to make a character sympathetic, I would not have alienated those readers …but then, Miranda’s redemption, once she finally learns better in later volumes, would not have been as great either.
It’s a risky trade-off. The whole audience will be smaller than it might have been, but, God willing, those who keep reading will be rewarded with a more memorable story.
Of course, I could have avoided all those lost readers if I had just opened my book with a rascally dog stealing a hotdog from the icy Miranda. Then, the dog could have gone on to save Prospero, probably with the help of a couple of mangy kids.
Would have made millions.