The Politics of Plot

The Politics of Plot

By David Corbett

One hears a great deal these days about the universal nature of story. It’s a gratifying conceit, that down deep we all share the same fundamental narrative.

But what about the more factional, political nature of story?

I don’t mean the depiction of torture in Zero Dark Thirty or corporate cunning in Promised Land. I mean the intrinsically political nature of how character is portrayed and plot structured.

It’s in the conception of human nature — specifically, what human beings can know and accomplish — that the political worm burrows itself into the narrative apple. And plot is merely the dramatic structuring of what the characters come to understand and do.

The closer a story hews to the idea of man as having a true nature, a destiny — a soul — and the more heavily the hero relies on certainty of purpose and strength of will to fulfill his ambition, the more pleasing it will be to conservative audiences.

Think of the Aeneid, or any heroic saga, as the archetype, including the chivalric romance and its modern avatar, the detective story.

Duty calls. The hero answers. An encounter with death — physical, moral, emotional, professional — clarifies the stakes. The question at the heart of the matter is: What will it take to prevail?

Most such stories stage the conflict with an external force or opponent, and though the adversary need not be conspicuously evil, few conservatives will complain if he is. Moral ambiguity favors the weak.

On the other hand, the more human nature is seen as intrinsically contradictory, fragmented, self-deceived — afflicted with what Conrad called man’s “miserable ingenuity in error” — the more it will appeal to liberal audiences. The will, so dear to conservatives, is inherently suspect, contaminated by hubris. All too many victories are pyrrhic. It’s insight that saves the day, if it arrives in time. Often it doesn’t. Ask Oedipus. Or Jake Gittes.

Many such stories stage the conflict internally, between a false, self-destructive self and a healthier, more honest — truer, if not exactly “true” — self. The main action typically concerns the struggle against a convenient lie in favor of a difficult truth — often about oneself. The hero is less warrior than searcher, and the story ends in wisdom, not victory. The narrative in one way or another asks: Who am I?

Such stories were far more in vogue in the heyday of psychoanalysis. Chinatown’s tragic pessimism concerning human understanding echoes not just Sophocles but Freud.

Not that conservatives fail to understand the capacity for human error or the darkness of our natures. Quite the contrary; evil doesn’t work in a vacuum.

But stories that appeal most to conservatives normally focus on the hero overcoming, not just recognizing, his limitations. Temptation is to be confronted, not explored. Vacillation demonstrates weakness, and the core thematic pulse to stories that lean right is the necessity of moral strength and purposeful conviction. Doubt is disaster.

Virtues may be hard won, but they can’t be ignored. A little sin is excusable until the end of Act Two. Then strap on your six-guns — or your moral clarity — and get on with it.

To which any liberal worthy of the name would promptly respond: It’s never that simple.

Of course, blatant politicking is a great way to alienate at least half your potential audience, which is why embedding the message in plot can be the savvier move.

It can also provide a way to hedge your bets, and craftily broaden your story’s appeal.

Take two of last year’s Oscar darlings as examples:

Argo presents a fundamentally conservative plot — the hero accepts personal responsibility for rescuing the vulnerable few from both murderous zealots and the indifference of a feckless bureaucracy (the Carter Administration, no less) — but bookends that plot with an indictment of American policy at the beginning, and President Carter speaking for himself at the end.

And for all the left’s hand-wringing over Zero Dark Thirty, the filmmakers pulled their right hook at the very end, when Maya (Jessica Chastain) sits alone in the C-130 that will take her “home.” The tear may feel gratuitous — having served out vengeance, perhaps, she can at last indulge her grief — but her isolation is absolute. Possibly she’s wondering if it was actually worth it. Revenge never brings back the dead. But there’s no doubt that her mission, her obsession, her reason for being, has reached its end. What else might she be asking herself except: Who am I?

All stories concern men and women making choices, taking action, and suffering consequences, This implicitly conveys a moral perspective. And since politics is the public arena of morality, every story is political, regardless of how deftly its author tries to disguise that fact.

David Corbett’s latest book, The Art of Character, is the ultimate guide to creating captivating characters. He has worked as a private investigator for 15 years before becoming the widely acclaimed author of The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime (a New York Times Notable Book), Blood of Paradise (nominated for numerous awards, including the Edgar, and named both one of the Top Ten Mysteries and Thrillers of 2007 by the Washington Post and a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book), and Do They Know I’m Running? (Spinetingler Award, Best Novel 2011 — Rising Star Category). David has taught at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, 826 Valencia, Chuck Palahniuk’s LitReactor, the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto and at numerous writing conferences across the U.S.

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Posted on May 1, 2013, in Publicity & Writing. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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