The hidden danger of stories – and a friendly alternative

Audiences loved the 2019 Downton Abbey movie, but some reviewers found fault. The New York Times review noted there was “barely enough plot to go around.” The critic for RogerEbert.com frames it more positively: It’s a movie about seeing people take “care of the little details,” an “opportunity to watch people who are very good at ordinary, non-lethal tasks do those things with skill and imagination.” The general lack of suspense is, as a software geek might say, “not a bug, but a feature.”

In my last post, I took some pains to describe precisely what is, and is not, a “story.” That is, formally, a story or narrative has a protagonist facing a challenge, leading to suspense and then its resolution. And yet, although I love a good story as much as anyone, I don’t want to come across as a “story snob.”

We don’t need the conflict/resolution structure of a formal “story” to enjoy spending time immersed in another world or a different point of view.

This past year has been an excellent time to engage our imagination elsewhere. I described a few weeks’ mental recreation in Trieste in a recent blog post, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. My partner and I had great fun this year watching several “slice of life” anime series – we get to know some characters, things happen, other things happen, time passes. There’s no grand story arc, beyond “our protagonist(s) adapt(s) to changing situations.”

One of our favorites was We Never Learn: Bokuben, set in a modern Japanese high school. Yuiga is a very good student, but his family is poor, so he has to tutor three girls who are each a “genius” in one field but failing others. Fumino is gifted in literature but horrible at math – and she wants to become a scientist. Rizu is great at math but terrible at understanding others’ motivations – naturally, she wants to become a psychologist. And Uruka is a talented swimmer but bad at studying, and without passing her classes and learning English, it’s no university for her. So… they study, they shop, they make snacks, they do housework, they get into innocent sorts of trouble, they work at jobs, they find themselves the subject of rumors, and of course there are endless relationship complications. There’s no real question that everyone’s going to succeed, since they’re all applying themselves, and we have the pleasure of spending time with them while they do.

bokuben

arthur_dentWhen it comes to fiction that’s more focused on enjoying our time with the characters than the suspense and resolution of a grand story arc, there are, of course, are plenty of examples beyond anime. There’s Friends, if we ignore the Ross-wants-Rachel storyline. There’s M*A*S*H – Hawkeye and the others just show up and do their job; they have no control over the Korean War. (In both cases, any given episode might have a story, typically two or three, called the “A,” “B,” and “C” plots, but the series as a whole does not.) And how about Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Our protagonist, Arthur Dent, makes very few decisions, with very little effort. He does lie down in front of a bulldozer, sure, but after that, he’s literally just along for the ride. (For a pretty deep discussion of that, check out the comments section on this writing teacher’s post.)

But that’s just entertainment, relaxation. There are more important reasons to welcome works of fiction that don’t fit the official mold of some grand conflict and its resolution.

Last week I read a fascinating Twitter thread by author Vida Cruz, who notes that editors often reject works by people of color if they have an “inactive protagonist,” which they see as a flaw. She points out that for people outside the white mainstream – not just those who aren’t white, but also those who have disabilities, or chronic illnesses, or aren’t neurotypical – sometimes, survival is itself an active choice. There can be plenty of “drama” without “conflict,” and the protagonist need not be a rugged individual fighting their way to an ultimate success.

If these works aren’t published, how can the rest of us learn from them?

alice_finds_keyhole(And if “inactive protagonist” and “lack of conflict” were really flaws, we’d never have met Alice in Wonderland.)

True, some genres need suspense and resolution to be satisfying – conventional mysteries, high-stakes thrillers, Harlequin-style romance novels. It’s an refreshing form of relaxation – letting ourselves caught up in a situation and gently (or nail-bitingly) guided toward closure. My point is that we need to remember that the traditional conflict/resolution story is only one way to enjoy fiction. There are a few other types of categories where this suspense/closure drama can be worthwhile, too, like a well-matched sporting event. But! This is recreation, not real life.

When we think about our own lives, the narrative form can be downright harmful. If we see marriage, for example, as a matter of securing the perfect mate and living happily ever after, we’re bound to make mistakes and experience disappointment. Or if we see our careers as building suspense until they culminate in the rewards of retirement, we’ll be lost when our “golden years” inevitably bring on frustrating problems of their own. Life is better if we try for balance and satisfaction all along… but if we’re addicted to conflict/resolution, the formally defined structure of stories, we may find ourselves using it as a model in real life, where it often causes harm.

Even on a larger stage – winning a war, convicting a criminal – the idea that all the loose ends have been wrapped up is misleading. This framework leaves no room for survivors to acknowledge the issues that remain.

Finally, one arena where the “slice of life” attitude will serve us especially well is citizenship. Certainly we can relax a bit if someone we trust takes the reins of government, but once we’ve elected them, we shouldn’t forget that it’s our job to hold them accountable (no matter the example the GOP just gave us during four years under Trump).

There’s a category of meta-narrative I call the Triumph, when we (our people) have been working hard toward a goal, then believe we’ve achieved it and can rest on our laurels thereafter. Sure, if the goal is for a human being to walk on the Moon, we can declare ourselves Triumphant, but most goals are less cut and dried.

If our Triumph storyline is called Manifest Destiny, then once we’ve brought all the land from sea to shining sea into the United States, we tend to brush off our responsibilities to the indigenous people we’ve displaced because we think that problem’s been “solved.” (And if they aren’t really there, it’s hard for them to get our attention – look how long it took the media to start covering the crisis at Standing Rock.) If our Triumph storyline tells us we’ve won the Cold War and now we’re the world’s Lone Superpower, we’ll be especially emotionally vulnerable to terrorism, because we’ve been imagining we’re “in charge now.” Or if we think electing a half-Kenyan president means an end to racism, we’ll be shocked at the angry white backlash. (African Americans knew better.)

I would even hazard a hypothesis that the self-satisfaction we’re taught as a nation of great achievements and a great destiny is one of the root causes of America’s challenges today. It’s a hard thing to recognize that problems don’t go away that easily, and to give up the credit we imagine we’ve earned simply by being born here.

Absolutely we should work to make things better – it’s our job as citizens. But let’s avoid Adolf Hitler’s mistake. When it comes to government, let’s not imagine our solutions can ever be final.

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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4 Responses to The hidden danger of stories – and a friendly alternative

  1. Robin Turner says:

    I haven’t seen Downton Abbey but got a similar impression with Sex and the City. Its “slice of life” approach made it a wonderful TV series and a disappointing pair of films – though the films were less disappointing if you regarded them as just another bunch of episodes.

    • The more I think about it, the more “slice of life” series occur to me. Today I was watching an episode of All Creatures Great and Small – it clearly qualifies too.

      • Robin Turner says:

        British TV specialises in this, hence those long-lived-going-on-immortal soaps like Coronation Street and Eastenders (this started in radio, I think – I just found out that The Archers, which I remember listening to with my mother before I even went to school, is still going strong). It’s just like “whatever’s going on here”. American TV series usually went first for self-contained episodes, each with its own story, then switched to the overlapping story arc idea, which is closer to the slice of life. In cop shows, Dragnet is an example of the former, while Hill Street Blues pioneered the latter. I actually came across a hypothesis that this increasing complexity of TV shows was a contributor to the Flynn effect – starting in the 1980s, viewers were expected to keep a lot more in their heads at any one time.

      • Hm, I wonder if U.S. Protestant kids are still expected to memorize oodles of Bible verses? Perhaps that’s a different kind of memory, though, since it doesn’t require random access in the same way as complex stories do.

        I certainly believe Star Trek: Deep Space Nine improved vastly once they fully committed to their story arc format.

        You mentioned long-lived British TV, and although As Time Goes By was nowhere near as long as the shows you mentioned, it certainly did very well at being amusing with very little happening, week after week after week.

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