Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Theme-Plot Integration Part 6: The Fallacy of Safety

The previous 5 parts of this Series of posts are:







Part 7 of this series of posts will appear on March 26, 2013

The essence of story is CONFLICT -- and conflict is the power-plant of the plot.

As I've defined it in previous posts about novel and film structure, story is the sequence of emotional states and lessons learned from those states experienced within the viewpoint character(s), while plot is the 'because line' or sequence of external events each occurring "because" one of the previous events occurred.

Story is about how you feel, and plot is about what you do because you feel that way.

Not every writer, or writing teacher uses those definitions -- but every commercial story writer I know has firm grasp of these two components of story, and how they interact, regardless of what labels they use to designate them. 

As I've been pointing out in this series on Theme-Plot integration, commonly held fallacies are a wondrous source of steaming hot romance stories and science fiction, fantasy, and magic based plots. 

One such plot generator of a commonly held, or wished for, fallacy is the fallacy that "safety" is real, is achievable, and even desirable.  Some would say necessary for life, especially if you're planning to raise children. 

Safety is the goal of every Main Character caught in a Horror Novel plot. 

In Horror, you stumble upon some monstrous Evil, it hits you, you hit back, struggle free, flee for your life, double-back to rescue someone, perhaps someone who's rescued you, someone you owe a favor, some total stranger you then fall in love with -- a SOMEONE who rouses emotions counter to stark-terror  -- then flee with that someone who perhaps then rescues you, and finally reach some kind of weapon to use against the Evil, turn and confront the Evil, and -- because it's Horror genre and this is the rule -- YOU MUST IMPRISON THE EVIL.  You can't destroy Evil, but you can be SAFE FOR NOW by putting it behind a barrier, a wall.  Think of a 3 year old hiding behind his mother's leg. 

The goal of Horror Genre is the payoff of FEELING SAFE (after long, drawn out, stark terror).  The more stark the terror, the more potent the feeling of safety -- people indulge in Horror Genre to achieve that RELIEF of SAFETY-AT-LAST.

The iconic film to consider here is Jurassic Park -- a love story, chase scene, horror imagery mixture worth studying.  The horror is caused by the usual "power in the hands of Evil" -- or uncontrolled or uncontrollable -- people.  And in this case, the classic bugaboo is "science." 

To understand the connection between Horror genre, Science Fiction and Fantasy, consider how Science as we know it today is a branch of Natural Philosophy, which was an attempt to make a systematic study of the how's and why's of Magic. 

Yes, it all starts with Magic - with Herb Lore, and other attempts by humans to get a handle on the Environment and all the threats to life and limb that abound in our world.  Since the first Cave Painting, humans have apparently been using our well developed brains to leverage intelligence into a method of "getting safe." 

With agriculture, medicine, well built construction, and the mastery of fire (and all subsequent forms of power sources up to electricity), we have been building a wall between ourselves and the ravages of Nature, extending our life spans and making those lives more gentle. 

Horror is an extremely popular genre because life isn't safe.  And the same can be said of Romance -- we search for (and most often do find) a Soul Mate, a PERSON who complements our skills and increases our ability to make a safe-spot in the whirling storm of ever present threats.

So while we've been applying every clever trick we can think of to gain safety from our environment (fire, famine, flood, draught, desert heat, arctic cold, disease, and hard work that breaks down the body) we've also been using that same powerful brain to figure out ways to gain safety from EACH OTHER. 

Yes, all the monstrous threats Nature throws at us pale in comparison to what we throw at each other.  We have warred with stones, clubs, axes and atom bombs, and now we war with chemicals and even diseases.  Every bit of Nature we control, we turn into a weapon against other humans who think, believe or feel differently (or who just own better crop lands or electric power sources).

The basic bond of the Soul Mate grows into the extended bonding of family, and multi-generational family structures which become tribes, villages, towns, cities, whole civilizations. 

Writing courses teach that there are three basic CONFLICTS: Man vs Man, Man vs Nature, Man vs Himself.

But I've never seen a writing course teach that all humanity, and every story ever told, has only one goal: SAFETY. 

Safety is certainly the goal of every Romance.  Safety is another way to say "Happily Ever After."  It's a point or situation in which there are no further threats that you can not overcome.  Everything from there on is easy.  You are SAFE.

Why do we seek safety?  And what is safety?  What ploys, dodges, plots and schemes have we invented along the way to convince ourselves we're safe?

What do we define as "safety?"  Where does that definition come from?

These questions are all philosophical in nature -- such as how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?  Philosophy, as I've often noted in these posts, is the source-material for Theme.

Pick a philosophical stance, state it clearly in one sentence, find an object that symbolizes it, and you have the essence of what you want to SAY with your story.

Every story, novel, poem, song, film, says something.  It is you the writer talking to your audience, and (as in a speech) taking a thesis, explaining it, demonstrating that it's true, then restating the thesis, transmitting an IDEA about life, about the environment, and maybe about the Soul.

You, the writer, as you say what you want to say, must hold the attention of your audience if they're to sit still long enough for you to get to your point.  Your point is your theme - an abstract (boring) philosophical notion. 

So you dress up that boring thought in concrete clothing - in a costume, period, in a practical object (like a lamp or a soup bowl) and you decorate your object to make it beautiful.

The object you decorate is a segment of a life, of a character's life, a segment that is recognizable to your audience and well defined in their minds already. 

Examples: Going Away To College.  Getting That First Job.  Getting That First Divorce.  Finding Mr. Right At Last.  The Death of Your Last Remaining Parent.  Inheriting The Haunted Mansion.  Having Your Child Move Back Home Bringing a Grandchild.  Marrying Off Your Grandchild. 

These are familiar life milestones even to those who haven't lived them yet.  Everyone knows people who have "gone through" a "period" like that. 

You, the writer, take a period like that, a recognizable swatch of "life" and decorate it with particulars, a character, situation, setting -- and theme!  You make a boring, utilitarian object BEAUTIFUL by making it unique.

Which brings us back to the concept of how Safety is a Fallacy a writer can exploit while at the same time delivering that emotional satisfaction of having achieved safety at the end of the novel.

The aftermath or denouement of a novel (to be classed as a Happy Ending or Upbeat Ending) has to deliver the emotional experience of SAFETY - the threat is over, gone, vanquished.  The characters can relax now, and so can the reader. 

You and I know it's an illusion, but the reader can experience it as real.

How do you create that illusion and "sell" it as real?

Let's consider where in life we experience safety.

We say, "There's safety in numbers." 

Families form groups, and tribes - towns etc.  Why?  Because we feel SAFER when surrounded by others.

However, the most formidable threat to human life on this planet is other humans.

So we band together to defend ourselves and our possessions from other humans.

Look again at the essence of the Horror film -- usually involving isolating a person (or two people) from "the others."  In diving, we always go with a buddy.  In spelunking, we always go with at least one -- more usually several -- others.  The object of the Horror Plot is a) isolate b) run from then neutralize a threat and c) REJOIN THE GROUP (or civilization, or your Combat Unit - whatever you got separated from you get to rejoin).

Why do humans feel not-safe in isolation? 

Well, note that biologically we are born "premature" compared to other animals.  Most other animals can stand or walk immediately to nurse, and are more functional in other ways.  Humans are premature because of the physiology of the over-sized head and the birth canal, so much fetal development happens in the first 6 months to a year after birth. 

So very early, there must be one other to care for us, hands-on.  To get good brain development, human babies must be handled a lot.  Later of course we rebel and take off on our own -- what mother hasn't chased their 2 year old across a parking lot? 

We are taught what to fear -- and other people usually top that list.

Familiar people are safe.  Strangers -- not safe, maybe useful, but not safe.

So in your mind, run through the stages of human development and correlate all you know against everything you've learned about how to create, handle, and resolve a PLOT CONFLICT. 

So, again, we're looking for wide-accepted fallacies to challenge in order to create a theme, a statement that leads to Happily Ever After, or at least safety.

The fallacy I'd like you to consider here is Safety Is Real. 

Does that fallacy come from our infantile experience of safety in the hands of our caregiver (mother, surrogate, father, elder sibling acting as parent - whatever hands got us through infancy)? 

Anyone who's raised a child knows that the parent's objective is to get the child to feel safe (to stop screaming and give me a moment's peace), to return to that safe place, ("Come here, Johnny!" Mom yells across the parking lot.) and not talk to strangers (but later to be socialized enough to fall in love and form a new family; what a contradiction.)  Anyone who's been a child knows that the child's objective is to take insane risks while utterly oblivious to the magnitude of the risk.

Human Parenting consists of implanting a "false sense of security" in every child. 

Since we deal with Alien Romance on this blog, I should point out that I said HUMAN PARENTING -- being very specific there.

So safety is an illusion we learn as infants to regard as real, and we crave it periodically throughout life.

Feelings of safety can be evoked by CONNECTING with another human, especially after a long period of facing dangers, risks, and horrors all alone.

The film series Home Alone comes to mind.  That is worth studying for the theme of safety and where it comes in our hierarchy of values.

Of course, we're not writing YA here, however, these are iconic classics about the process of learning what safety is (and is not.)

There are any number of pop psychology books on "leaving your comfort zone."   All of those are great resources for Thematic material you can craft around the concept of the Fallacy of Safety.

So, since we're looking to write for adults -- about adult issues -- we should look at the adult version of the experiences of the infant and the pre-adolescent. 

I have a theory (thematic material, indeed) that all International Affairs, and all theories of government, all governmental forms and the clashes between them, recapitulate the experiences of infancy and pre-adolescence (sometimes adolescence too).  I look at governmental bodies (Congress, Parliament, etc) and their antics as eerily similar to Elementary School play yard activities.

One of the things kids do, especially adolescents, is form cliques.  Countries form Alliances. 

One thing adolescents do is dress alike.  Some generations have prided themselves on each person violating some or all of the conventions of dress imposed by their parents -- in rebellion.  The net result is a school full of kids all dressed identically -- ever noticed that?  Mismatched colors, floppy baggy shapes or tight-skimpy patches that pass for clothes - it doesn't matter.  Teens adopt an identity.

In some neighborhoods, gangs abound - and what do they do?  They adopt a UNIFORM -- something everyone wears to mark them apart from others.  Often it's a scarf of a particular color or pattern, or a type of shirt.  In defense, schools adopt a School Uniform.  This just reinforces the underlying PHILOSOPHICAL CONCEPT: "Safety In Numbers."

So we grow up, get a job as a Congressman and join a caucus -- or a coalition -- a GROUP OF GROUPS who all think or act in the same way.

In a previous post in this series, PART 4, Fallacies and Endorphins, I mentioned  Edward Bernays.  Refresh your memory on the idea that the father of Public Relations (i.e. publicity, advertising, spin doctoring) viewed humanity as having a natural herd instinct.

Themes derived from that idea can range from No Man Is An Island to Each Man Is An Island -- from we're all the same, to we're each unique.

All advertising is based on this assumption: humans can be herded.  You just have to hammer the individuals into uniform units (i.e. dress them all alike in school uniforms), and they'll stick together.  You know the Chinese adage that the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.  That's how a governmental system based on herding humans for SAFETY has to treat individuals --- they must be made into uniform copies of each other and taught to stick together.

We all learn in school to be inconspicuous in class when we don't know the answer.

We all learn the value of "fitting in" and we do feel safer in groups.

We don't walk the dark streets at night alone, and it isn't just for safety from muggers.  We go in groups because each human is UNIQUE.

We each have a set of talents, abilities, and acquired skills that are distinctive from those of everyone else -- and no one person, alone, has ALL the skills and talents needed for a high probability of survival -- not safety or certainty, just a good chance.

So we are attracted to our opposites (Soul Mates are rarely identical, and "interests in common" don't usually insure a life-long marriage).  We look for those who don't have our skills -- but have other skills, so that among our friends and relatives (our Church Group or whatever group) we have access to all the necessary skills, talents and abilities.

That diversity of skills arises from a diversity of philosophical positions on any issue, and yet we get along best with people who agree with us about a few basic ideas.  As we change our ideas about things, we change the groups we associate with.

Political coalitions are often formed from groups that are mortal enemies -- who don't argue their differences until a resolution is reached and someone (or everyone) changes their mind. 

We discussed arguing fallacies to a plot-resolution in Part 3 of this series of posts.

Why do we form coalitions?  One good set of answers (good being those that generate plots you can write) arises from the human search for power over other humans, as discussed in Part 4, Fallacies and Endorphins.  Again I refer you to the book, You Can't Lie To Me by Janine Driver and the theory that politicians who exercise power over others (particularly with a lie) feel an addictive rush of endorphins from exercising power over other humans.

Why do humans experience pleasure in exercising power over other humans?

Would that be the case if humans really had a herd instinct as Bernays says?

As I described here above, note that the history and pre-history of all humanity has been the fight against the ravages of Nature -- but that battle pales against the backdrop of the fight of humanity against humanity (war.)

Exercising power over other humans makes humans feel SAFE -- that's what that endorphin rush does!  And it's a fallacy.  A drug induced delusion.

We wouldn't need that delusion to feel safe if we had a natural herd instinct.  Just being with, beside, or among other humans would make us feel safe.  It doesn't.

It takes particular, specific, unique humans around us to produce that feeling of "family."  That is because each of us is a puzzle piece, maybe with a fairly standard shape but a unique color or pattern -- or perhaps with a standard color and a unique jigsaw shape -- we only fit HERE, not THERE. 

Each of us has an exact place in the world, and when in that place we feel safe.  Outside that place, not so much. 

We feel powerful when we are in our place -- threatened when not.

Coalitions (political within a government, or among nations) don't bestow that "in your place" safety - not a safety in numbers, but a safety that comes from being among those whose skills and talents complement your own.  Coalitions are based on the fallacy that "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" and so always fall apart as soon as the external threat has been handled or neutralized (or just abated a little.) 

The members of a coalition are themselves natural enemies that can't co-exist -- that's usually the nature of a coalition. 

A family isn't a coalition so much as it is a "small business" (an economic engine).  The power of that engine is Love -- not the hate that powers Coalitions.

Each of these statements I've strewn throughout this series is itself the source of hundreds of possible themes strong enough to support a novel.  And each suggests a plot.

The plots based on the nature of a "coalition" (the "agree to disagree" formula) is obvious.  The cooperating entities dispense with the external threat, then (to the surprise, shock or horror of the others) turn on each other in a war of dominance that can turn to a war of extinction.

The plots based on "each human is unique and fits into one exact place in the world" are not quite so obvious because you don't see that many of them, especially not outside the Romance novel field.  These plots are the "find your Soul Mate" plots, "Love At First Sight" plots, and "The Stranger Who Goes Home Makes Home Strange" plots -- all the "Home For The Holidays" plots fit in that category.

We live in an era when internecine warfare is considered the natural state of the family -- almost all the TV series currently running assume some sort of embarrassment, strife, or even hatred of Parents -- going "home" is indigestion-incarnate.  Estrangement is almost synonymous with Family.

So the philosophical statement, "Humans can not be herded because each human is unique and has an exact place in the world," seems to the audience like a fallacy.  That makes it a very powerful source of Theme for a Science Fiction Romance.  The cognitive dissonance inherent in the theme is maximized by the "real" life of the reader.

A plot that addresses that theme might be formed from a Main Character buying an expensive item (a TV set, iPad, Green Energy House) that was ADVERTISED (Bernays; herding humans) enticingly, being disappointed with the performance of the product, fighting the company for a refund or redress of injuries, maybe taking it to Legal Aid services, (meeting a Soul Mate of a Lawyer - imagine that!) and powering it through all the way to the Supreme Court -- years and years and many children later, ending up as the Spouse of a Supreme Court Justice (you never hear about them in the news, do you?)  Becoming a Supreme Court Justice means you're "safe" -- because nobody can fire you and you make enough to support your family well.

Of course, then there's always the sequel where the Supreme Court Justice resigns and runs for President. 

Live Long and Prosper,
Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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