Do you remember, in the Matrix trilogy, how the first attempt at trapping humanity in virtual reality was described as a perfect world without conflict? Humans withered and died. The machines had to inject conflict, suffering, and injustice into the program for their battery-slaves to thrive.
What I’m about to say might sound like a misanthropic observation, but human beings love conflict and injustice.
Chris Hedges, author of War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, asserts that “war is a drug,” and that our addiction to it is why we tolerate or even thrill in its injustices. The only way drug addiction can work is to latch onto receptors our brains have gathered up during our evolutionary history. There is something about a struggle that naturally appeals to the human creature.
This is true not only in the stories we like to live, but also in the stories we like to read and watch on the big screen. Script-writing guru Blake Snyder spoke of the “six things that need fixing” in the protagonist’s life, which should appear early in every film to irritate like burrs under the main character’s saddle. These six little troubles are in addition to the surface struggle, the deep story conflict, and the “B Story” thematic question.
That’s a lot of problems, and they don’t get fixed until the end of the movie.
Injustice must dominate a story for us to care. Justice is boring. And when I speak of justice being boring, I don’t mean a story where everything gets put right, because to get put right things need to start out wrong … that is, they start out unjust. Problems need fixed. Justice needs brought.
So, when I say justice is boring, I mean the absence of any injustice is boring. The struggle against injustice, on the other hand, is intriguing as hell.
Imagine a world like the one described in the Matrix, characterized by genuine justice. Not a world where the police and court systems work perfectly, but a world where no crime, no injustice is ever committed, no offense ever given, no burr ever found under-saddle. How quickly would you start to go stir crazy in such a perfect world and, like Ishmael in the first chapter of Moby-Dick, just start “methodically knocking people’s hats off”?
To be interesting, a story must have injustice. Things have to be unjust. And they need to be unjust long enough for us to care.
Those of use who are familiar with writing workshops are likely also familiar with stories in which unfair things happen but are almost immediately rectified. Main character gets slighted and swiftly gets sweet vengeance. Like, within paragraphs. Boring.
Things have to be wrong long enough for us to care. The hero or heroine has to stew in the unfairness. They must struggle. In other words, when the injustice is over, the story is over.
Now, some of you who are steeped in writing advice might object that you can move a story forward simply by raising questions. “Grab the reader’s/viewer’s curiosity,” you’ve heard/read. Getting your audience to wonder if Trent is going to ask Madison on a date will keep the scene moving! There’s interest, curiosity, and tension … but no injustice.
Here’s where I explain why I used the word “strategy” in the title.
It is true that simple, low-stakes story questions can move you through a scene, but that’s tactical writing. If you want to carry a narrative to novel- or film-length, you’re going to need some genuine injustice to carry you through. That’s strategic writing.
Oh, and that other key word in the title? If justice is boring, but injustice isn’t complete, what it is that makes a good story?
Enjustice: bring the justice to injustice.