How to Tell a Story to Save the World

Normally, when people come along to a creative writing class, they are hoping to learn how to write better, not how to save the planet.

A couple of years ago, I was teaching a Guardian Masterclass on ‘Storytelling Secrets’. Among those attending were three representatives of an international environmental activist network. They were young, casually stylish, energetic and exhausted. To save a few words, I’ll call them the Greens.

When the time came to speak individually to the writers, the Greens asked if I could speak to the three of them together but for three times as long. ‘Fine,’ I said.

We met, and the Greens explained the reason they were attending – They felt their message about climate change was no longer getting across. They needed to change that message into a story, and a good story, a moving, powerful story, in order to grab people’s attention. Specifically, they had a story about polar ice-melt.

I really wanted to help them. Environmental degradation horrifies and preoccupies me. That changes in the timing and nature of the seasons have happened within my short lifespan is appalling.

However, I have thought a lot about this. And one of the tangential outcomes of that thinking is the story ‘The Gloop’ which appears in the Beacons anthology. I’m not going to summarize it here – if you want to read it, it’s there to be read. Where some of this thinking has lead me is into what might be call ‘Storytelling’s Dirty Secrets’.

I tried to give the Greens a shorthand version of my reasoning.

The problem an environmental group faces is this: In order to create moving, powerful stories, they need to create sympathetic central characters. In order to change people’s behaviour, they need heroes and heroines to act as role models.

But – and it’s one of the biggest ‘buts’ I’ve ever laid down – but it seems to me that the most environmentally degrading force in existence is heroism.

It seems to me that the ultimate cause of environmental degradation is that almost all of us, despite our questionable doings, regard ourselves as sympathetic central characters.

Here is a trivial example. Another kind of butt.

Meet Paul.

As he drives back from work, Paul enjoys a well-earned cigarette. When it’s mostly gone, he winds the window a crack and flicks away the butt.

It doesn’t matter where Paul’s cigarette butt lands – on Streatham High Road or in a field of summer-dry corn in Sussex. The act may have different consequences, but for Paul it’s the same act.

Once the cigarette is out of the moving car, it is out of Paul’s story. And the only reason – I would argue – that Paul has no problem with flicking away the butt is because it feels to him a heroic act.

You hate Paul, don’t you? You can see no defence for what he does with that butt. But Paul doesn’t hate himself. He might feel guilty, but not for long. He has more important things to do.

If you stopped Paul to ask whether he was proud of what he’d done, he might admit that it was probably a bit out of order or he might tell you (not in these words) to mind your own business. But, at the moment he performs it, the act is incidental to his heroic onward journey. He may not even notice what he’s doing. His chosen soundtrack plays. Paul is not stopped, not questioned. Paul’s story, in which Paul is the sympathetic central character, flows onwards.

Paul is his own sympathetic central character because everything in the culture surrounding him is always telling him that he is a sympathetic central character. Every advert. Every story.

The only reason the world functions at all, Paul is told, is because of heroes like you. Even groups need heroes to lead them. Without a leader, any group will collapse into uselessness.

Heroes go on quests. The quests of heroes are righteous. It is righteous of Paul to return from work. Paul’s work pays for things Paul needs. Paul may have cute children. Paul’s children need things. Paul’s partner may also go to work. Paul’s partner goes on quests.

As I was speaking to the Greens, who weren’t looking particularly happy, this is what I tried to say:

In order to get their message about polar ice-melt across to Paul, and to the rest of us, they will need to speak to him in a language he understands. They will need to avoid angering or alienating him. And so, they will try to tell him the most moving, powerful story they can. They will tell him the story of a different kind of heroism. That it is heroic not to flick your cigarette butt out of the window of your moving car as you return from work. It is heroic to put it in the ashtray. Or more than this, that it is heroic to give up smoking. Or even more than this, that it is heroic to take the bus. Or even, that is heroic to change your workplace, so you don’t have to commute. Or even, that it is heroic to change the kind of work you do and to change the kind of society you do it in.

What the Greens should do, but cannot, because it is so undermining, is say to each of us directly:

You are not a hero. Your acts are not righteous. Neither are ours, individually. Our individual illusions of heroic righteousness are catastrophic.

What they should say, but cannot, because it would alienate almost everyone, is what needs most of all to be said:

You are not a sympathetic central character because exactly what centre are we talking about? There are either seven billion equally important centres, in which case if they all behave like you we’re screwed, or there are no centres, in which case we might just stand a chance.

3 thoughts on “How to Tell a Story to Save the World

  1. thanks for this hugely important post…

    I wonder though if the prominence of traditional heroism in stories (and in life) is declining, is an up-to-the-twentieth century phenomenon? Until a few weeks ago I wouldn’t have suggested it, but I’ve just read John Higgs The Future Starts Here, and he suggests that those born in the twentieth century do not have the invidualistic urges of their ancestors (and he puts this down to the networking power of their umbilical connection to the internet).

    I think we’ve already seen authors slowly writing central characters who are not traditional heroes, but with whom we sympathise all the same. My favourites of these would be authors such as George Saunders or Miranda July.

    (Mind you, this doesn’t mean I think there’s time for literature to focus on a new type of hero that can inspire people to save the planet…)

    Perhaps I haven’t quite understood your point though – are you saying that we cannot have CENTRAL characters (excuse the shouty caps, there’s no italics)? which implies a very different type of story…

    • And thanks for your response. What I’m trying to say is that by seeing themselves as like the characters in the majority of films and novels, people tend to justify their own actions to themselves. I don’t think George Saunders’ or Miranda July’s characters are de-centred enough, or involved enough in collective endeavours, to counter this. Partly, it’s an issue of framing. Screens work well with one or two faces, less well with groups of seven or eight, crowds are generally threatening or threatened. I am not trying to ban anything. I’m pointing out that a great deal of our culture pushes us towards self-justifying heroism. Just do it.

  2. No, I think you’re right – I’m confusing non-heroic with non-centred in the case of George Saunders and Miranda July’s characters. The fact that I find it difficult to imagine what a story about a non-centred hero might be I think proves your point.

    Can you imagine what literature that still worked as literature might be, it it inspired us to sympathise with collective endeavours rather than a central hero?

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