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Not "Just The Facts" In Stories

Copyright 2003 Dorian Scott Cole

A writer must always have foremost in his mind the question, "What does it mean?"

The "embedded" reporters in the war with Iraq were very illustrative of what a storyteller's role should be and should not be.

Military time is filled with mundane "hurry up and wait" stuff: quickly getting from one place to another, settling in, setting up logistics, and keeping watch for the enemy. Unless the enemy intervenes, nothing much happens then for long periods. "How to come up with a story?" becomes the question of the day. This leaves the reporters trying to find stories to fulfill commitments, and following any direction that is natural to them.

Various reporters displayed various tendencies. Some reported on living the mundane and the occasional action. Some made the leap to commentator, analyzing and judging military strategy, as if they were privy to the overall strategy. They weren't.

Others went on to make news. Three examples:

1. P. A. stepped into a political role. He assessed the military situation from his perspective, and then reported it on the enemy's TV. As a direct result, even though he partially acknowledged his error and apologized, he lost his contract and much respect.

2. I watched J. R., master of the expose, suddenly launch into an expose blitz during one report. While traveling with the military he had become heady with knowledge, and during this report he drew fully illustrative pictures in the sand. These pictures gave away existing positions, routes, strategies, and goals of the unit. As a result, he was escorted out of the country, away from the soldiers. He continued reporting.

3. Still other reporters found themselves in harm's way and become the news in an unfortunate way, either being taken prisoner by enemy soldiers or being killed during hostilities.

Two of these reporters obviously moved beyond telling the story to interfering in the story either through their personal bias, unbridled pride, or their story telling technique. As these reporters showed, it is difficult to set aside other roles and personal biases, and simply tell the story in a meaningful way. While from the molecular level to the macro level, it seems impossible to observe a process without disturbing it, it is possible to tell the story without becoming part of the immediate story.

This same problem often surfaces in stories that are meant for entertainment, such as screenplays, stage plays, and novels. For example, sometimes writers write about behavior that has a psychological or medical cause. Psychological and medical symptoms, seldom have "pure" causes. They typically have multiple causes and multiple symptoms. Some experiences may cause the writer to be biased about the subject. Specialized experience in an area may cause the writer to slip into an expose. Or that experience may cause the writer to go so far into the causes that it drains the story of energy, and people lose interest in the plot and drama while off on a learning experience.

The writer who has a bias, often slants the story so dramatically that his hand is painfully evident in shaping the storyline. Still other writers feel compelled to have their characters state the premise of the story, or the moral, or even explain the plot. The writer's opinion comes through instead of the story.

One example of the biased storyteller who interferes so much in the story that he ruins it, comes from the world of news reporting. There seems to me to have developed a new class of news storyteller that I think needs to actually be classified so that people know to take these people with more skepticism. These people don't really report anything, nor are they really "commentators" in the traditional sense of the word. They are an outgrowth of talk radio shows. I have never thought that any person is smart enough to talk that many hours a day and actually say anything constructive - they just talk themselves and their listeners into well defended corners.

I think of this new class of news storytellers as "news entertainers" who do entertainment routines. They have a consistent point of view (usually poisonous) and martial news stories of the day into material that supports their positions and biases, and do so with an entertaining delivery. I question if they talk themselves into a quasi-neurotic syndrome in which everything they see is viewed through the lens of paranoia or some other symptom.

While these "news entertainers" often make some good points, it is their polarized interpretation of events that gets sickening. Fifty thousand watts of R.L. (St. Louis), the self-professed (tongue in cheek, I'm sure) "gift from God," in my opinion spews enough toxins into the atmosphere to choke his listeners mental processes. The same is true for N. B. (Atlanta), who in my opinion bullies and berates people who have difficulty explaining their opinions when their opinions aren't nearly as cogitated and rehearsed in their delivery as his. Pardon them for expressing an opinion. A good host questions people to state and understand what they think. These "news entertainers" are the types of people and deliveries that incite lynch mobs or laughs - constructive thought seems incidental.

Every reporter and commentator has some bias. It is inevitable - they are human and have experiences in their lives that make them interpret events in certain ways. That's a healthy thing, and bias doesn't necessarily ruin a story. If we went to a "Just the facts, ma'am," style of reporting, we would get little from the news, and see very few differences of opinion that make us think.

The journalism schools traditionally teach the five, "who, what, why, when, and where" of the story. The same formula is true for fiction entertainment. The four uncolored facts, "who, what, when, and where," seemingly taught by some schools, while relevant, don't necessarily tell the full story. It takes "why" to convey meaning. Why relates directly to the intended "intentions, implications, and consequences."

People do things to make other things happen - intentions and consequences. "He killed his wife to get the insurance money." This is an oversimplification of storytelling since actions often have unintended consequences. For example, he killed his wife to get the money, but he got caught, and so he will spend the rest of his life in jail; and one coconspirator was shot while fleeing the police and one coconspirator is still at large and being sought by the police in a search that demonstrates the meticulousness and perseverance of police work. So probably the word "why" should be replaced with words like "meaning" and "consequences," but these words don't start with the letter "W."

In the "Coalition of the Willing" war with Iraq, the "why" is, "To disarm and remove from power a brutal and tyrannical regime, to prevent the regime from threatening the US, the region, and the world with terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, based on the previous actions of a leader who consistently uses terror and weapons of mass destruction against his own people."

The secondary consequences of this action, which might become more important than the original "why," is that "The Iraqi people will no longer have the threat of tyrannical leadership over them, and will gain the benefits of democratic government."

Telling any story unfolds the human drama. The human condition, as it unfolds in the human drama, is what stories are about, whether in news or fiction. For example, a story may tell of a soldier's waiting, miserable conditions, daily pounding by the enemy, people dying around him, and the impact of these things on his morale and his performance in battle. For example, reporter Martin Savidge (embedded with a Marine battalion in Iraq for CNN) recently did a report on the impact of various phases of the Marines' journey into war on their mental attitudes as they followed the trail from training through reaching their Baghdad goal. I thought the brief story to be one of the better examples from reporting of this war.

Meaning is best conveyed experientially, that is, telling the story through many small experiences that people can relate to. Meaning in the short term might be about mind numbing conditions, days without sleep, sand in their eyes and guns, seemingly endless training and retraining, and the inability to see the enemy through sandstorms. Meaning might also be conveyed in the expression of power: power to re-supply, superior firepower, superior air power, and technological superiority. But in the long term, meaning might be about the impact of these things on the outcome. It might be about the contrast between us and them, and the impact on the outcome for each.

One of the stories which might be fun to debate about whether the writer's hand is evident, is The Life Of David Gale, (2003, written by Charles Randolph, Directed by Alan Parker, Dirty Hands Productions; Intermedia Films; Saturn Pictures; Universal). If this story makes a statement about the death penalty, what is the statement?

If you haven't seen the movie, skip these two concurrent paragraphs to avoid spoiling the ending. In this story, David Gale (Kevin Spacey) is on death row and requests an investigative reporter to report on his wrongful conviction and coming execution. Of course the reporter believes Gale to be not guilty and wants to save him, but the clock runs out and he is executed. It turns out that Gale was an activist with a group that opposes the death penalty. He and another woman had nothing to lose, so they concocted a scheme to sacrifice their lives to demonstrate the injustice of the system in erroneous convictions.

On the surface, the story may be about a few people who find no meaning and purpose in life, except a cause: opposing the death penalty. The statement might be that, "People who are dedicated to a cause and who have nothing to lose, may go to the extreme of giving their lives to make their case."

The statement might also be that, "Death penalty convictions are easily misjudged, as demonstrated by this wrongful conviction." The statement in the preceding paragraph is against activists and protesters, and the statement in this paragraph is against the death penalty. Did the writer's hand show up, as some have claimed?

Stories are used in many areas of our lives, not just journalism and entertainment, and stories provide us a way of interpreting life to understand implications and consequences.

In marketing, "implications" are called "benefits" that relate to customer needs. Instead of saying that the product has certain features, a gidget, a gadget, and a whistle, the meaningful "story" is, the product makes your business or life better by reducing costs, bringing in more revenue, or by making life easier. The features make these possible.

In business, the story shows up in the mission statement. Instead of allowing any individual function within the business to become the end focus, such as making money, or saving money, or designing products, a business plan might guide the process by stating that, "We make create products and make money to benefit the lives of our employees and stockholders." All other activities then line up behind this objective, forming a complete story.

In psychology, the meaning of stories that people use in their lives are often noted and reinterpreted. For example, a person might be saying the story to himself that, "My friend is jealous of me, so she hurts me by making my life miserable by criticizing me all of the time." This story might legitimately get reinterpreted to mean, "My friend cares about me and gives me realistic criticism that if I follow will eventually make my life better."

In religion, the meaning of events is sometimes cast in a different perspective so that the story has a different meaning. For example, the story, "This happened because God is paying me back," might be cast in the perspective that, "This event is a consequence of what I have done, and God will help me learn from it and find better ways."

In finding meaning and purpose in life, the story might change in both content and in perceived meaning. The woman who found meaning and purpose in raising her own children, when the nest is empty might find meaning and purpose in using her empty rooms as a library where neighbor children can find books that stimulate interest and permit children to gather to do homework with a knowledgeable tutor present. The story morphs into a saga.

Stories communicate meaningfully. When writing a story, the writer must always have foremost in his mind the question, "What does it mean?"

* Full names of people who are mentioned in what may be interpreted in a negative way are not listed to avoid giving black eyes to people on these pages, particularly since the pages remain indefinitely.

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