Worldbuilding From Reality
Ripping A Headline For Theme
Previous entries in Worldbuilding From Reality are indexed here:
On Facebook back in May, 2020, I ran across a comment on a Headline I considered extremely "rip-able" -- so much drama entwined in the scenes behind such headlines.
The article is fraught with emotionally loaded, semantically powerful, language which drives inexorably toward a specific conclusion, and careful reading of the article reveals much about the very nature of theme.
We have discussed theme and targeting an audience many times, looking at the use of theme from many angles.
One of the most commercial uses of Theme in fiction creation is simply to target an audience. This article illustrates that usage in journalistic prose. Master writing articles in this style to insert into Chapters where your protagonist needs to learn something about the theme of his story, her life.
Theme is a statement (or question) about some matter of ultimate concern -- but what matters concern an audience varies with the average age of the audience, maybe gender, maybe economic status, maybe political bias, whether they believe the HEA is real or wish-fulfillment-fantasy.
Currently, we are in an election-of-a-lifetime, and it truly is a life or death election for many people who have had their lives ruined by the shut down. Some see the shut down as due to a virus that may or may not have been deliberately created, maybe not genetically engineered but just deliberately bred, and weaponized. Others see it as an artifact of malfunctioning government.
We can only imagine what might have happened, and we've all seen enough horror movies to have vivid imaginations about what governments might do, while journalism is agitating our imagination.
So, no matter who is in charge of a government and no matter what that person might do with government power, most of the people will just purely hate that person.
It's natural to hate anything that coerces you -- including parents, and even the most passionate Soul Mate.
We all understand striking back at people whose actions constrain our actions.
So we impute our own most probable motives to those who strike back and to those who constrain. We imagine ourselves into the characters portrayed in the real-life news, and firmly believe we know what went on behind the scenes. As long as we're governed by humans, we're probably pretty close to accurate.
Because we understand the world in fictional terms, journalism has learned to extract, distill and present to us a "narrative" -- a plot, a because-line of events -- that leads us to conclude whatever the owners of the news outlet want us to conclude.
In fiction writing, we use the term "show don't tell" to indicate that we must portray, illustrate, but never come out and SAY IT to the reader.
The reader will believe what the reader figures out for themselves, NOT what the writer tells them to believe. So we show emotions, but we don't name them.
This technique of inducing the reader to adopt a specific conclusion by figuring it out for themselves has been perfected by journalism.
By carefully editing away extraneous or confusing events, focusing on a "narrative" the journalists lead the audience to believe something that will motivate the audience to act in a certain way -- vote for a particular candidate, or vote for someone they hate just to get a particular policy enacted.
This is called "slant" in journalism, and "genre" in fiction.
It is the selective recreation of reality with emphasis on selective.
The particular issue being highlighted doesn't matter. What matters is the spotlight of the highlighting. As in stagecraft the spotlight has to "follow" the actor -- making everything else shadowed, but real and acknowledged. The spotlight shows the audience what to pay attention to, and what to ignore.
Taking the spotlighted issue of the era (say, Climate Change, Weapons In Space, Financial Malfeasance In Office, Government Funding, anything really) and extracting from it a THEME you can use in fiction to enthrall your reader is the foundation of good writing.
Write about what the reader is interested in, but say something on that topic that the reader does not expect.
The THEME is what you have to say about the issue, but a theme is an abstraction, a principle of reality as you understand it, or as your Main Character understands or misunderstands it. The Main Character then learns through the Plot Events of the novel. That's Character Arc.
For example: In my Romantic Times Award Winning novel, Dushau
I used the overall theme of "Innocent Until Proven Guilty" to generate a plot driven by an unjust accusation making a fugitive out of an innocent non-human who couldn't comprehend the injustice.
This is a theme dear to my heart, and so when I see any hint of it in real-world headlines, it gets me revved up.
That happened with this Washington Post article to my Facebook Feed.
So one of my Facebook contacts summarized the meat of the article in a way that drew many comments.
It should be noted that the investigation here involved whether or not Pompeo and his wife used a federal employee for personal errands.
State Department inspector general fired as Democrats decry ‘dangerous pattern of retaliation’ State Department Inspector General Steve Linick was fired Friday in a late-night ouster that drew condemnations from Democrats, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warning of an acceleration in a “dangerous pattern of retaliation” against federal watchdogs.
Linick, a 2013 Obama appointee who has criticized department leadership for alleged retribution toward staffers, will be replaced by Ambassador Stephen J. Akard, a State Department spokesperson confirmed Friday. It was the latest in a string of weekend removals of oversight officials who have clashed with the Trump administration.
Way down the active comment thread, someone said something that prompted me to reply:
It's not supposed to be "investigate this person to see if they did this crime" -- it's supposed to be, "here's a crime somebody did, FIND THE CULPRIT."
When the crime is misuse of an employee's time, it is difficult not to look at the employer as the source of the directions being followed.
Which is so true, I stared at it a long while before replying:
Yes, and the most attractive suspect is rarely the culprit.
So one of the other commenters on the thread jumped in with:
Really? Where did you find statistics supporting that claim?
And then added:
In reality both approaches are used; that's how the DEA goes after drug cartel members, among other criminals. Sometimes you just know someone is guilty; the problem is finding good evidence that proves your case.
Clearly that double comment had come after a reaction somewhat like mine -- thinking hard about the entire context. But he was thinking in an entirely different context than I was thinking.
So I wrote the following long-essay reply:
As a professional science fiction writer, I've studied perception and subjectivity and language and culture, etc (but my degree is in Physical Chemistry). Read some of my novels to see if you think I have a handle on that.
Recently, research has surfaced (again) about subjectivity, and expertise. Bottom line: the more certain you are that you are correct and know exactly what you're talking about, the more likely it is that you're wrong, or not correct, or only partially correct in a special case.
It used to be a surprise that "the butler did it" -- now it's a cliche.
So in this context, if it's "difficult not to look at the employer" as noted (accurately) for misuse of an employee, then don't look at the employer first or that's misuse of your employer's time.
Note, rather, how the phrasing of the headlines leads you to a specific interpretation of the text of the articles - and away from other interpretations.
"Late night firing..." does not constitute a crime. There's no statute against firing an employee - no statute that says what time of day you may fire an employee. The person who suggested the firing and the person who did the firing were both entitled to fire the job holder.
All those involved held the correct titles and authority to act. No crime is sited. It is our suspicions about motives that make us sit up straight - and our very low opinion of the persons holding the various offices make us certain there has to be some nefarious deed here and it must, absolutely must, be illegal! It just must be a crime - must. We feel that deeply.
Or put another way, it's hard to assume a person innocent until proven guilty if you hold that person in low esteem - and as you point out, finding PROOF is the difficult job.
Accusation does not imply guilt.
"Knowing" does not even hint at guilt. You must start with the crime and work up the tenuous connecting thread(s) to the culprit -- not the other way around.
Starting with the person and "investigating" them until you find some crime they must have committed is the foundation of tyranny.
Once the culture accepts "investigate the person to find the crime," two to four generations later, it seems perfectly plausible to people who never knew any other way of governing that government and law enforcement must investigate everyone to find their crimes, but since the budget won't allow that, law enforcement depends on friends and family to rat out the culprits (and the rat can lie with impunity.) Accusation=Guilt.
So new "leaders" make so many laws or decrees that every single person is guilty of something horrendous, and the new tyrants just need to pick out their enemies and sic the investigators on them -- because everyone is guilty of something.
In those intervening decades, the kind of person, the sort of character who is attracted into a career in government or law enforcement shifts from true public servants and statesmen to wannabe dictators with a frenetic inner compulsion to control other people's behavior.
So I pointed out that this story about an appointed paper-pusher being investigated is presented via headlines phrased to encourage the assumption that accusation=guilt. This assumption is indicating we are edging into the procedural black hole of investigating people instead of crimes. I'm sure you can name a bunch more in the headlines who are people being investigated.
So go read some current pre-election headlines, search for the connecting theme underlying the issues spotlighted, look into the shadows around the spotlight and find what you have to say on the matter.
If you need more inspiration for building a Science Fiction Romance world, check out my blog entry from May 12, 2020: