Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Believing in Happily Ever After Part 3: Standardization vs. Customization

Part 1 of this "Believing in Happily Ever After" series is:

Part 2 is:

Last week, we left off in the midst of examining the TV Show Leverage noting that Leverage has a "Tell Don't Show" opening that sets out the premise starkly, and explicitly states the theme.

The opening voice-over is:
"The Rich And Powerful take what they want.  We steal it back for you."

Now we're putting that TV show's premise and theme into the context of the world of the viewers it's aimed at, (you and me, actually, though Leverage is not a Romance.) 

Consider, this is a world in which huge social forces (not the least of which is the Internet and dot-com companies that  are going "public" on the stock exchange and wielding more power than any other kind of company before) are striving in two directions, creating conflict and a philosophical argument so big it's nearly impossible to see or define.

I parse it this way.  (do your own parsing).

I see, via Leverage's window on the philosophical/fiction-theme world, the conflict as Customization Vs. Standardization. 

Remember all the times I've sent you to read Alvin Toffler's non-fiction book, Future Shock.  He gave me the insight to be able to see things in this light now. 

Remember that the Essence of Story is Conflict. 

Plot is a sequence of events on a because-line -- because this happened we have a problem, which causes us to do this, which results in that, which causes us to do something else, and so on because-because- in unbroken chain all the way to problem-is-resolved. 

The conflict is Us vs. Problem. 

The conflict is resolved by a sequence of actions which resolve the conflict -- after the problem is solved, there is no further conflict.  (Happily Ever After) 

Out there in our everyday reality, the reality your reader lives in and uses to judge the 'plausibility' of your fictional worldbuilding, there are nested conflicts. 

We discussed nesting plots in Verisimilitude Vs. Reality parts 2 and 3, September 13 and 20, 2011.  

To create nested plots, you need nested conflicts, which means you divide one huge abstract theme into sub-themes, factoring a philosophical conundrum into smaller pieces and arranging them one inside the other, like Russian dolls.

So I'm looking through the window of a TV show (in this case Leverage, but this process works with any show, movie or novel) - and imagining the audience, the reality they live in, what they know about it and what they don't know about it.  I'm imagining the audience that Leverage is speaking to.

People love this show for a reason -- well, each person for a different reason -- but they see the show as trivial, as light entertainment, and of course it's not real.  But it's plausible for a reason.  We as writers need to know that reason.  Or reasons. 

The audience's emotional reactions come from their own unconscious assumptions and mostly from what they don't know about themselves.

Playing on that unconscious part of a reader's mind is called "art." 

Remember in the Big Love Sci-Fi series we discussed the social boundaries between Private and Secret shifting, melting and reforming.

That's one of the huge philosophical issues younger readers are unaware of but affected by emotionally.

So private vs. secret can be a thematic conflict line that generates a plot (thousands of plots).

Another conflict line even bigger than private vs. secret can be Standardization vs. Customization

So let's make a little list:

 a) Secret vs. Private
 b) Customization vs. Standardization
 c) Statistics vs. Prejudice

Each of these 6 components of conflict represents a huge, complex, abstract, and powerful thematic concept.

Let's think about Customization vs. Standardization in our world and how we can use that nascent argument to create plot generating themes and conflicts.

In the 1800's the Industrial Revolution took off steaming into the 1900s where Henry Ford popularized The Assembly Line method of producing thousands of identical copies of a complicated thing.

The more complex machinery became, the less economically viable hand-building such machines became.  With Ford's advent, the frustration of business men and industrialists with "craftsmen" who worked slowly and methodically to produce a non-uniform (custom made) product was resolved.

Read Toffler's Future Shock and the description of how our public schools adopted the "covert curriculum" of hammering kids into identical "workers" for assembly lines, because that's what Big Business needed schools to do (and of course Big Business was and is the source of political campaign funds that can not be ignored).

So until the World Wide Web, Microsoft, AOL, Google, Blogs, email, ebooks, etc, Standardization was the Holy Grail of Business.

Products had to be made uniform -- all alike -- or it wasn't cost effective.

But people weren't all alike.  So business set out to create consumers who all wanted the same thing.

Radio advertising and then TV advertising worked to satisfy that requirement -- that uniform products required uniform consumers to want them, and uniformity was the solution to consumer's frustration with things that don't work.

Different Is Dead became the rallying cry of the 1940's and 1950's. 

The 1960's brought the Internet and Star Trek and Spock who was DIFFERENT!!! 

Star Trek portrayed on the ultra-uniform medium of series TV a UNIQUE INDIVIDUAL character.  He stuck out like a sore thumb, and was admired, respected, obeyed and even loved by his crew-mates for his differences. 

Vulcan was a culture that lauded the philosophy of I.D.I.C.  -- Infinite Diversity In Infinite Combinations.

The 1970's ushered in an era of (Alvin Toffler's Future Shock was published in the 1970's and is in new editions today) an era of CUSTOMIZATION.

Toffler predicted the cottage industry of telecommuting and even named it.  Today a lot of your customer service online is done via chat by workers working from home on customized schedules and individually varying computers.

Women's Lib and Martin Luther King all belong to this, but branch off into the conflict of Statistics vs. Prejudice.

Let's focus on this Customization vs. Standardization for a bit more.

This is a huge, multigeneration trend that most of your 20-something readers won't be aware of because this long perspective on history isn't taught in schools, nor is the philosophy behind it addressed below graduate level in college. 

We are now in the crunch-zone of this conflict.  Schools world wide hammer young kids into identical bricks. 

The counter trend is only found in private schools for the gifted or rejected, schools that let young kids wander around a rich classroom and pick up things to learn about as they become interested. 

Mass market education is still aimed at turning out identical product - workers for factories that no longer really exist. 

Note how the Federal Department of Education (I'm in the USA and use that perspective), could be viewed as a huge and bloated agency created by combining agencies and then not purging out redundancies but rather fighting turf wars for good paying federal jobs.  As a result of that, and various administrations (this is not party-specific) efforts to appease campaign finance sources and do the right thing by our kids anyway, we now have a Federal series of tests that all students have to pass.

That's standardizing people to function in a standardized world.

But as Toffler pointed out, we're not in a standardized world any more.

Small wonder we can't produce enough employable people.  Small wonder there are whole segments of TV viewerships who see their lives as mashed down and unjustly ruined by these huge forces -- "the rich" or "the government" or whatever huge thing their squeaky voices can't reach.

That plight produces emotions that are likewise widespread.  As a result, fiction that would not otherwise be popular, is popular. 

Think like a Romance Writer for a moment.  Can Romance be standardized?

Or is Romance the enemy of standardization?

Here's an article, I hope is still online, about facial recognition software, facebook, google, and online dating sites -- and the whole issue of using your "real" identity online.


Remember the popularity of the Western Romance. 

What are Western Romances about?  Rugged individualists (not unlike the A-Team or the Leverage team).

Victorian Romance, Steampunk, you name it -- Romance is always about the misfit's unique qualification to succeed because of their differences not in spite of them.  (so is Science Fiction, for that matter)  And the TV show Leverage, the show Psych, the USA shows White Collar, Burn Notice, Royal Pains -- all of them feature unique individuals. 

This country was founded by folks who didn't fit the mold back home and went pioneering into the wilderness.  Those who survived to forge this country into a Nation were individualists who visualized a customized world, where each individual was valued for their unique qualities.

They lived in a "handmade world" where no two quilts were alike, no two butter churns were alike.  People wrote with quills - bird feathers - and no two of them are alike.  In fact, if you read original manuscripts from the 1700's even the most educated and erudite did not spell words in any uniform way, not even in the same document..  And precious few could read, though in the 1700's in America, that was changing.

Has anyone noted that there is a re-casting of the newspaper articles from the 1700's where folks were arguing about what kind of Nation we would become?  It's in modern English now because the originals are almost incomprehensible, (wild spelling, archaic words, involuted sentences like I write) and it became an overnight New York Times best seller.  The Federalist Papers.  It's on amazon.com. 

Standardization wasn't even a concept back then.  There was no conflict, not a lot of stories to write, about the vast sea of identical people and the one individual who stands out from "the masses."  "The Masses" as a concept didn't exist, though philosophical theorists were busily inventing the whole movement we label as "Liberal" or "Progressive" today. 

One novel series I do love from that era though is Cooper's The Leather Stocking Tales.  The story of two unique individuals reaching across a cultural gulf (European to Native American), against the backdrop of imported European armies fighting a war for territory.  By that era, Armies were rows of standardized troops moving in unison.  It may be that armies became the first standardization of people -- dating from Roman times, for sure. 

The power of Rome lay in that standardizing of troops, maneuvers, uniforms.  When Rome fell, England and Europe were left with Knights -- individuals in tin-can armor fighting for Honor.

Standardization , the assembly line, screws all the same size, brought vast wealth to this Nation, and a revolution to the world. 

It also brought the idea of Unions, of the rights of the peasants, the poor, the downtrodden, the "masses" of identical, expendable canon fodder peasants, into a political world. 

But we haven't won that battle yet.  The USA is still the only country with our style of government -- every other country that elects governments that actually govern uses the Parliamentary System of the country the USA broke away from, England.  The USA is still unique.

But there has arisen an entire society within the society of the USA - that might be a majority now - that values "fitting in" above "unique."  Some are so desperate to make sure everyone fits in and is thus happy that they're willing to use force to make others fit in, and that makes for great conflict to generate stories. 

That's the conflict most teen-romance features -- think Twilight.  Harry Potter.  The argument for the unique individual is presented in both those formidable series by the depiction of the environment and the people around the main characters, who stand out or are rejected by the masses of people who value being identical to others. 

Next week, in Believing in Happily Ever After Part 4, we'll look at how to link two of these "super-themes" -- themes so huge you can't pitch them in a voice over in front of a TV series and call it a premise.

Secret vs. Private + Standardized vs. Customized

See if you can find how these two huge conflicts blend into a nested theme structure. 

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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