Western Union

There’s an old story (variously attributed to Sam Goldwyn, David Selznick and Frank Capra) in which a writer or director announces his new idea for a film will send a powerful message. The response: “If you want to send a message, send it Western Union.”
This quote came back to me recently while reading an unpublished short story (I wasn’t asked for an opinion——at least not yet——and didn’t offer one). The concept (stripped of a few details): Protagonist invents groundbreaking invention. Invention generates controversy. Protagonist explains to readers why he’s right and the opponents are 100 percent wrong. Protagonist rips politician’s counter-arguments to shreds. Protagonist gets killed by one of his unhinged opponents.
I am not the best audience for something of this sort because I hate polemics. I hate them even when I agree with the writer’s perspective: Sheri S. Tepper, whose writing is, I think brilliant, still lost me as a reader as her stories became more and more “Western Union.” (as my friend Ross and I like to put it).
I hate the stories that are nothing but long-winded lectures on why military aggression/libertarianism/Christianity is The Answer. I actually hate them even more when they try to dramatize the conflict by having the protagonist argue with someone. I almost never seen one where the other side actually gets to make any points: Instead he (or she) is reduced to sputtering “but … but …” or offering pathetic, easily refuted arguments or showing they only oppose the protagonist because they’re hypocrites or cowards who know he’s right. In Vince Flynn’s Term Limits, for example, a terrorist starts shooting elected officials to enforce them to enact his political agenda (I forget the details). When the protagonist argues the killers have some merit to their position, the other side sits there going “but … but … but.” Small wonder I haven’t read another Flynn novel since.
Another problem is skewing the story so that there are no arguments against the protagonist’s position. Libertarian L. Neil Smith’s Probability Breach assumes a libertarian limited government (the US basically never went beyond the Articles of Confederation) where magically, slavery has disappeared (Thomas Jefferson convinced everyone to give it up!) and there were no Indian wars (with no federal government to take the land, white people had to buy it, so the Native Americans are rich instead of oppressed). Yes, libertarianism works wonderfully if you ignore plausibility completely. Even if Jefferson had been dedicated to ending slavery——which is hard to credit in any timeline——seeing him put an end to it would be grounds for a novel in itself, not an offhand paragraph.
Polemics can work if the idea is really, really interesting, and if the story’s not too short——Robert Bloch’s “World Timers” is a good example——but you’re better off showing, not telling. If you want to write about political malfeasance, skip the lectures, just show the wrongdoing.
It’s a lesson I’ve sometimes had to learn in my own writing. My original draft about Kernel of Truth expressed a lot of my distaste for corporate corruption, but I’ve cut most of it out in the rewrite I’m currently doing. No question it’s a better story. I’ve also eliminated a couple of long-winded arguments from The Impossible Takes a Little Longer——though I did give both sides valid points at least.
If you can’t think of any good arguments against your protagonist’s position, there’s no story. Refuting arguments is not a story. Save it for a letter to the editor.


Filed under Politics, Writing

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