Cindy Sheehan’s quest for an interview with the president has captured the attention of a nation. For the first time in a long time, liberals have an edge on leading the national conversation. Trouble is, they don’t understand why and they don’t understand how it happened, so they are going to continue to be mired in the gibberish produced by think tanks and policy analysis, thus boring the electorate shitless and losing attention. Want to keep the advantage we’ve briefly experienced with Sheehan?
It’s very simple: We are a storytelling species. Tell some goddamned gripping stories that illustrate our world view.
This is different from “framing,” mind you (a phrase I’m coming to loathe, no matter how useful). Framing addresses how to name and slant specific policy stances and issues. Narrative illustrates the specific consequences of policy – and propel interest along through a process of plot, which encompasses characters, conflict, action, growth and ultimate outcome.
Human beings want to make sense of a chaotic and superficially meaningless universe, and our brains are consequently programmed to respond to a story arc; it’s how nearly all of our cultural information and our world views are passed on. Even when we are telling of the events of our mundane day at the dinner table, we unconsciously use the age-old structure of narrative: beginning, middle, end (or Act I, Act II, Act III), with the punch of a climax built into the end. (See David Mamet’s superb Three Uses of the Knife to learn more about the structure of daily storytelling.)
We respond to narrative the same way we respond to cocaine: We simply can’t get enough of it. We want more and more and more. That’s why there’s Homer’s Odyssey, Shakespeare’s plays, the Bible and the Koran, reality TV, comic books, the Academy Awards and soap operas (the latter proving quality execution doesn’t even matter … just feed us some drama. Now. Fast. We’ll take crack if cocaine ain’t arround). That’s why there’s interest in Cindy Sheehan.
That’s also why the right has gained so much traction in the national conversation: they tell a good story. Terry Schiavo, Bush the recovering alcoholic kickass cowboy, liberals are killing Christmas and on and on and on.
Good versus evil, the small versus the mighty … suspense, heroes, adventures, action – and in Sheehan’s case, the ultimate storyline of all storylines … the noble quest. Get the hang of how to use this structure, and you’ve got yourself a podium with this nation.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s still a need for liberal policy institutes and think tanks to pore over polls, spot economic trends, analyze the statistical impact of proposed legislation. But dumping the resultant reports on the public without giving it a coherent narrative is going to bind us to the “ivory tower academic” image forever – and it’s going to glaze our collective eyes over in the process.
In my view, it’s better strategy to nurture some decent middlemen (or “middlepersons” for the PC crowd) who can tell a decent story – some talented fiction writers and playwrights and screenplay writers – to write press releases and blog interesting stories into the mainstream. Creative writers have the additional advantage of being cheap; “will write for food” is pretty much the motto of anyone trying to break into the fiction/screenplay market.
I was going to use this diary to go into details about the necessary specific elements of pure story and how to use them to best advantage in the political realm, but this is already long enough. If there’s any interest, I’ll pursue it in future diaries. If not, I’ll let it die a natural death.