A monumental epic is being authored and we all have roles marbled through its chapters. It’s a story within a story and as writers we need to be following this plot; not only because we’re directly affected by its outcome, but because there’s much to be learned about its ideas, themes, and characters.
I’m referring to the United States presidential race and the satellite elections buzzing through congress. It’s convoluted and as layered as any novel you’ll ever write. Let’s look at it.
For starters, we have the marketing of the candidates and the creation of their political personas. We also have real-life drama orbiting those personas. We’re watching the scripted play, AND the dressing room squabbles, AND the panicked last-minute re-writes.
These political operas become virtual manuals for any author of fiction and non-fiction.
In our own writing we’re challenged by the book or article we’re trying to scribe followed by the “selling” of those words. Lots of personal stuff can get in the way, things we don’t expect, things that influence our story and the deadline we promised to meet. It’s the same in politics.
So it makes sense to study the good-guy, bad-guy presidential race. Just like a novel, it’s spiked with tension and surprise. The insights hide in the details, in the nuances of political slips, denials and fabrications, the stuff Shakespeare wrote about. The best and worse examples of human nature explode in our faces, coaxing us to take sides and boo the foes.
Politics is a mirror of dramatic structure, the writing elements we need to master: like creating a connection to the reader, writing memorable dialogue, building characters we care about, shaping their backstory and setting up a universe with believable rules that maintain the suspension of disbelief.
What do you think political strategists do? They build characters and project ideas, just like writers. They ARE writers!
And when it’s all working just right these strategists capture our interest and lure us to believe their tales. Some of it is true. Some of it isn’t. Most of it reinforces what we already believe. It brings us to action, encouraging us to share it with friends.
The goal of any speech writer is to express a narrative that’s emotionally charged, nudging us to exclaim, “Yes! That’s me!”
All great novels and informational books accomplish this same task: they capture our attention and direct our focus. They make the story feel personal.
The politician strives for the same results. When successful, he controls our ideas and our perception of the world. She makes us like her and we persuade our friends to follow her lead.
But we all do that, don’t we? We all have stories to tell and we hope people are listening. As authors, teachers, policemen, parents, children, life partners, bosses, employees, artists, bankers, sales people…we all strive to express our ideas and convince others we’re right, or conversely, to leave us alone. The arguments of right and wrong, which way is best, who’s on the side of God, those confrontations are the bedrock of war and peace, love and hate, bliss and pain, author and reader.
There is no way to leave this dance, nor should we. As students of writing it behooves us to watch and learn from the greatest show on earth: our presidential race. And while I follow this year’s circus (I wish it weren’t), I’m amazed at how far the ring masters are taking us into fiction. I’m even more amazed at how easily the throngs in the stands are believing the illusions.
“Just take the pain away!” we demand. “I don’t care how you do it, but do it now.”
“Yes, I’ll do that,” answers the man we hope can lead us. “Believe my story, empower me with your vote and I’ll take your pain away.”
“But I don’t want you to control me.”
“I won’t control you. I’ll help you. And I’ll make the world a place where it’s just like your own.”
“But how do I know I can trust you? I’ve been following all the rules and still I’m in pain, and my family is in pain. And it’s getting worse.”
“I know. I’ll change all that.”
“But how? Doesn’t congress make the laws?”
“Don’t worry about the details. I’ll take care of you.”
“But I’m scared.”
“What are you scared about?”
“I’m scared that someone else will take what little I have. And I’m worried the government will take what’s left after that.”
“Don’t be afraid. I’ll banish those other people, those different people. And I’ll shrink your government where it no longer has the power to control anything. Including you.”
“But I’m still afraid I won’t have enough. I can’t find a job anymore. And what if I get sick?”
“There’s nothing to be scared about. There’s plenty of everything right here at home. Our country is great. Always has been. Always will be. This land will protect you.”
“But not control me.”
“No control. Only protection.”
“Will you take more of my money for that?”
“Of course not. In fact, I’ll take less money from everyone. And I’ll save money by protecting only you and not those other people who don’t deserve it. You see, I love you. Make me your leader, believe my words, and all will be well.”
If this dialogue sounds like a fairytale, it is. ‘I’ll-make-this-land-yours’ is one of two stories being told and believed. The other talks about shared sacrifice. But neither message is the Uber-Story.
The biggest story of all is the confrontation among the millions of Believers. There are many groups, and to enter the center stage political playbook they must join the camp to the left or the camp to the right. And as we know, there is little agreement between these camps and within these camps. The big show is complex and it’s hard to understand. So the storytellers dumb it down to broad melodrama. And for the most part, the American people are okay with that.
But we writers, we’re story tellers too, and we’re entitled to watch and read the subplots of stealth manipulation and subconscious reactions to it all. It’s really imperative that we understand how this ballet of beliefs molds our culture, our audience, our market, and our own minds.
There’s an approaching gale on the horizon. Our democracy is ripping apart and we’re being told it isn’t. Can we afford to ignore the storm? No, we can’t, for we are already inside it, showered with subtle notions, influences and distractions. We hardly notice the pelting of indoctrination.
With so much on the line we have to ask ourselves, right now:
- Just how aware am I, of the controls?
- Where are my ideas coming from?
- Am I telling my own story, or someone else’s?
- Where does fiction stop and the truth begin?
- And most importantly, do I care enough to find out?