From Homer to 9/11, how storytelling charts our survival
To understand the power of 9/11 as story, consider a concept in screenwriting that Robert McKee describes as “the inciting incident,” the event that sets a story into action.
Once you grasp this storytelling strategy, you begin to recognize it everywhere, in stories small and big. A fog turns Rudolph into Santa's heroic headlight. In “The King’s Speech,” a shy prince with a speech impediment must assume the throne after the death of his father and the abdication of his brother – and then make a radio speech that calls his people to a war against fascism.
Consider the opening sequence of every episode of “Law & Order.” It begins in a typical New York City setting where we meet two or three new characters. They may be hotel maids, or delivery men, or a couple kissing in the park. Happy, sad, angry, inebriated, they are immersed in the comfortable cycle of everyday life. Then something happens -- a bolt from the blue.
A maid finds a bloody corpse in the bathtub; a delivery man stumbles over a dead body in an alley; a lover sees something strange in the shadows of a tree.
These characters have one job: to discover a dead body, in narrative terms to spark the inciting incident. We will not see them again. After the quotidian rhythms of city life are disturbed by murder, it becomes the job of cops and prosecutors to restore Gotham to some version of normal.
“The inciting incident,” writes McKee in his book “Story,” "radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life.” Dorothy runs away from home to save Toto and is swept up in the tornado. It will be the job of the writer to get her back to Kansas so she can help restore order to a safe and loving place called home.
It is the morning of September 11, 2001, a beautiful late summer day in New York City, the sky a vivid blue. I sit in Florida at the breakfast table and watch the Today show. A well-coiffed Matt Lauer interviews author Richard Hack, who has written a book about Howard Hughes. I might have said to myself, “Hack is an unfortunate last name for a writer.”
The interview ends abruptly as Lauer listens to a producer talking into his earpiece. He tries to grasp what he is hearing. Before long we see live video of smoke pouring from the World Trade Center and hear reports that a "small plane" has flown into the north tower. We hear talk of a terrible accident, until the flash of another plane comes into view and then disappears, a large jetliner flying straight into the south tower, exploding in a fireball.
A bolt from the blue.
The inciting incident of our lifetimes.
Nothing will remain the same.
We spend the next decade trying to restore order, through pat-downs at airports and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; through retribution upon terrorists wherever they may be hiding. We resort to desperate measures. We spy on citizens, humiliate prisoners, and torture suspected enemies.
Air travel is transformed and distorted. Our economy sinks into a deep ditch. Immigrants and Muslims become scapegoats. Our major institutions, from governments to schools to banks and businesses, teeter on the edge of exhaustion and collapse.
Bin Laden is dead, an American bullet through his eye. There will be no worldwide caliphate enforcing Islamic religious law. But he may have achieved an important goal. He may have made us made us less like us – and more like him. To defeat him, we chose to set into battle our darker angels.
In his book “On the Origin of Stories,” New Zealand scholar Brian Boyd argues that the evolution of the human brain to enable language and fiction plays a central role in our survival.
We are a storytelling species.
In fiction we invent the conflicts that stories must resolve. This virtual reality, this substitute experience, prepares us for resolving the conflicts of the real world.
The first stories in Western culture are epics of war in what we now call the Middle East. In “The Odyssey,” Ulysses takes years to fight his way back to hearth and home. But something has happened back in Ithaca: A crowd of suitors has occupied his household, coveting the wife and wealth the clever warrior left behind. This inciting incident heats up the narrative until the epic moment when the hero’s righteous anger explodes into mass slaughter.
Nonfiction works at a second level. Not only does it build our muscles to face future struggles, but at its best, it works in the here-and-now. Stories expose corruption, ignite the flames of justice, restore the well-being of a community.
Boyd also argues that the elevation of heroes and the death or ostracism of villains reinforce the value of collaboration among humans, a form of cooperation that helps us not only to survive and endure, but to prosper.
As it was for Homer, so it is for those of us who live to tell and retell the stories of 9/11 to our children and grandchildren. We can now narrate parables of survival in the hope that our culture, political system and way of life will re-form and carry on.
Prosperity eludes us and may do so for some time to come, but many great stories end without the hero reaching the Promised Land, even as he looks down from heights to see the wasteland restored.