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Views & Clues... to Writing Success
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Once Upon a Time
Tis the dark of winter as I write. It's June but this is Australia where the seasons are the wrong way round to everyone else.
It's been raining constantly for days. The wettest month for seven
years they tell us. Of course we blame global warming - the
weather's getting worse, we say, as we do every year, though the
reality is probably different.
Once upon a time
the world was a simpler place, where emotions and actions were more
easily classified and understandable. That's why we start stories with
'once upon a time' - because this implies a place and time when truth
was more apparent and simpler to recognize.
Beginning a story with 'once upon a time' is another way of saying: Listen to this story, it's true, it's educational, it will teach you something that is still true today.
Once upon a time
adds weight to a story - it alerts us to the idea that there will be a
moral hidden somewhere in the text - and that we will learn something
important from history.
Of course it's just a writer's trick. Adding 'weight' to a story is
just another way of asking your readers to suspend their disbelief for
a little while. For just long enough to hook them with characters they
might care about - and root for.
All great stories start with characters because we're people and we
often need to see the world through the context of another person's
eyes that become our own, to make sense of things, of ourselves.
The ability to identify with other people is a uniquely human
capability, but apparently not one that sociopaths enjoy - a breed of
human, I've read, that is more common than you'd suspect.
One in fifteen, a recent UK study found, could not empathize with their
fellow man /woman in a way that made them care about whether they hurt
them or not.
The cruel manipulator - aka the sociopath - is a recognizable archetype
that manifests itself in fiction as 'the bad guy' or the dire
circumstance with no apparent antidote.
Like an uncontainable virus, evil permeates fiction, forever trying to
thwart our hero's actions and agendas. Without evil, and its
vanquishment (is that a word?), there's no obstacle to overcome, no
real story to tell.
Look at all the old myths and fairy stories - the common thread is
there. From George defeating the Dragon to Little Red Riding
Hood, the evil is personified through characters that must be destroyed.
In our make believe, once upon a time worlds, evil is easy to spot. The
bad guys look bad and they wear cool clothes and speak with perverted
intelligence and guile. They get all the best lines.
But in real life, evil is more subtle.
It comes in many guises and hides behind charm, distraction, even
beauty. Evil shakes our hand and makes us feel loved, before stabbing
us in the back.
That's why we need stories. To remind us that we can't always believe what we see, what we think we know.
The UK study I mentioned above also noted that sociopaths don't like
fiction. They don't get it. They don't read novels - and only tolerate
movies. I suppose because if you can't empathize with people, you're
never going to empathize with fictional characters. You'll never see
So fiction isn't for people that are evil, it's for the rest of us.
To help us. It's like a secret code, hidden in plain sight, to warn us
about the dangers of those who would hurt us without conscience.
Writers tell stories to spread the word - that evil and its manifestations are everywhere, in everything, all around us.
But writers also present solutions. Ways to defeat evil and become stronger, better human beings.
Once upon a time it was simpler to identify the fire breathing dragon,
the angry god or the soul sucking harpy. And the hero's quest was plain
- to take his trusty sword and run it through the heart of evil.
Now, it's harder for us.
We don't even know what evil looks like half the time.
It's often bland and inconspicuous. The psychopath with an angel's
face. The friendly corporate logo that hides the greed within. The
politician's smile that never reveals the secret agendas of
Fiction helps us deal with evil, injustice, cruelty, selfishness and the lack of conscience we see in the world around us.
Books and movies have become the 'bread and circuses' that distract and entertain us these days.
But never forget their deeper message. That, by recognizing and
acknowledging evil, we are better prepared to meet and
And create a better world.
That's what all writers want, surely.
Not a world without evil - but a world where good always wins, just as it did, once upon a time.