Here’s a fact. To keep a an audience captive, a story must have a good plot structure. No matter how lyrical the prose, without structure your carefully crafted words will remain unread. But what is structure? ‘To structure means to choose’, says Robert McKee, author of best selling screenwriting advice book ‘Story’ (one of the many books on writing I’ve studied). The choice of placement of the twists at the appropriate point to move the story forward. The choice of events to be included; what is relevant to the narrative? And what is irrelevant to this subjective truth and should therefore be omitted?
Writing memoir–as I do–gives you a more conscious idea than most how far the truth can be stretched whilst still remaining true. Because memoir is in the business of selling the truth in a way that makes a winning story. Dull parts are taken out or minimised. Conflict and tension, if not consciously exaggerrated, are unconsciously highlighted because they felt important at the time. Hand on my heart, I have never knowingly fabricated an event or a feeling. But like shit, perspective happens and the truth I once believed is not necessarily how I view things now. I have recently re-read my first memoir and realised that although I thought I was telling the truth at the time, my subjective truth has since changed with the benefit of hindsight.
Over time I’ve also learned the art of storytelling. The first memoirs I wrote had no dialogue, and even less character arc. They were an uninteresting stream of consciousness even to me. I learned how to make my stories more compelling, whilst still keeping them within the realm of truth. But I wonder, now more than ever, does the simple fact of telling my life in story form mean that I am lying? What does our very human love of stories mean for us in a ‘post truth era’?
What is the truth?
The truth is exists relatively within context. In a memoir, I make sure that my truth is told in such a way as to highlight both my emotional truth and key plot twists. But I can tell you that any moment, any event, any feeling can be made into a plot twist depending on which narrative I believe at the time of writing. Since my narrative is based on my subjective truth–as everyone’s is–this changes.
The truth is told according to and in order to perpetuate one perspective. And it doesn’t have to be consciously done. For in between the major plot twists, the storyteller foreshadows. Clues planted early on in the story will keep the reader reading, ramp up the suspense until bang; the twist is upon us. But in reality foreshadowing is present for every single event. It is rare that something happens without warning, and thus a successful foreshadowing in a memoir, is only a matter of highlighting the chosen clues in a way that they stick up oh-so-slightly more than the rest of the narrative. That doesn’t mean that other clues don’t exist for many, many other possible twists. They do. But because they aren’t highlighted in the same way, by placement or literary device, they pass unnoticed sometimes even by me. I cannot rightly say this is lying, but it does border into the realm of artful distraction.
Artful distraction, a legitimate and often unconcious element of storytelling, is used without apology by journalists, whose goal is to get the important messages as they see them, to the appropriate audiences. And in a bid for readership, even our nods to objectivity have fallen by the wayside. As should be evident, examples of objective journalism are rare (non-existent?) because journalists are human, although individual styles of reporting are on a spectrum. The Economist for example is dryer, less emotive, more factual than the tabloid press. But it still has its own angles and we choose our literature as it resonates with us. My father, a professor of economics who distrusted emotions, trusted The Economist probably because it resonated with his way of being. In an effort to choose my news sources more carefully, I’ve subscribed to it. I read it for ten minutes last night and found it was a dry but effective cure for my insomnia. It did not resonate with me.
Emotions–as reactions to particular experiences or styles that resonate with us–are clearly subjective. What instils trust or empathy in one person, may bore or disgust another. Trump has garnered him support from many; but he and his stories disgust me, they are opposed to what I believe is the best way for this world and me, to survive. They are full of violation, self-aggrandizement and polarity. Those who believe that violation, self-aggrandizement and polarity represent the most successful survival strategies, may be more likely to buy into Trump and his stories. But having been victim of these distinct behaviours which have threatened many times over my own survival, I do not, I cannot move past my disgust to give them validity. And that casts doubt by association on their veracity.
Stories are the most successful vehicle for transmitting messages to the people. Those like my estranged father, a benevolent, old school sexist, white cis-het man from the sticks of Indiana but globally educated to the PhD point of rationality, may be less immune to dramatic tabloid reporting. But even he reads fiction and the stories which appeal to him most. Last I heard, his favourites were written by rural Americans like John Updike and Tom Clancy. I don’t want to consider which way he might have voted.
So we are all driven to understand the world through stories and we have an insatiable appetite for them. That appetite is a reflection for our need to understand life through personal and emotional experience, otherwise known as our subjective truth. We have always been in a post-truth era because our interpretation of truth can only ever be subjective. Today the difference is that Trump doesn’t pretend to be in any way objective. As a narcissist, it is impossible for him to be anyone other than who he is, a man dedicated to destroying the world which doesn’t fit with his vision. I’d wager he believes his own truth, no matter what facts say. And the real truth is that we are all, to a greater or lesser extent, prone to do likewise.
Stories and the structure of them are chosen; if not by the teller then by the reader. We believe what we want to believe and find the stories which fit our beliefs because it is the best way for us to survive. To believe that we can do otherwise is to disregard our fundamental nature. I read the guardian and the New York Times. The stories flesh out my already subjective point of view, giving me a sense of security and reassurance–I am not alone in my outrage. But I know, as unwillingly as I want to empathize with them, those equally human readers of Breibart likely feel exactly the same way I do. I read some of their stories today and felt nauseous. For me their truth is a vile exercise of spun propaganda. For them perhaps, my truth is unrecognisable and outrageously false. At the very least it is a part of a narrative which is dull and irrelevant, and should therefore be omitted.
With thanks for the inspiration from Modern Mythology: We Can Weaponize Fiction, But How Do We Monetize Truth?