Titanic: meta conflict supreme

Last night I was trying to think of stories that start with the meta conflict rather than with a character. Huge disasters that capture the imagination show up again and again as the setting for novels and movies: how many movies deal with the second world war? how many novels?
The loss of the Titanic is a very vivid disaster that (in comparison to a war) lasted a very short time, and it really evoked a huge response from people — it continues to do that. So it makes a natural setting for stories of all kinds, and thus is a good example of starting a story with the meta-conflict. Ship sinks. No big mystery, no suspense. You know the ship is going to sink, how, when, and what the cost will be, how many deaths, etc etc. So how do you make a story out of that?

You build the characters and the conflicts between characters around the apex of the story, the actual sinking of the ship. Most usually people make up fictional passengers. Star crossed lovers; a wife thinking of leaving her husband. An Irish family fleeing poverty for the promise of gold in the streets. The ship going down has to fit into resolving (for good or bad) whatever conflicts you set up for these people. In the end, what goes on between them in the real story. If that’s missing, then all you’ve got is a very graphic depiction of people dying an awful death. That’s not storytelling: that’s voyeurism. That’s a nighmare.

My personal take on the Titanic is that it has been overdone. If you want to build your story around a disaster, there are certainly enough of them out there to work with; why beat the poor Titanic into submission yet again? Unless you can come up with some set of characters in a conflict so absorbing, so perfect, that it has to be told. Of course, somebody has probably tried already. Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic, Madame Bovary on the Titanic, Don Juan on the Titanic.


Don?t you think, though, that there are circumstances under which that kind of voyeurism is ? well, I am loath to use the word ?necessary?, but that is the one that keeps coming to mind. By that I mean that novels written without the depth of characterisation and the traditional conflict-to-resolution process of a good story still have a place in the healing of a society after an event of considerable magnitude.

The one example that springs to mind is the rash of novels — interestingly, in the Young Adult sub-genre– that sprang up after the Ash Wednesday Fires here in Australia, in the early 1980s. The characters weren–t complex at all, and any conflict was of the very predictable man-versus-nature variety, yet I think that these novels provided allowed people to explore their personal experiences of the fires within the context of the quasi-fictional framework of the story. (The difference, I suppose, is that novels of this kind rarely have any kind of longevity: Allan Baille, from memory, has one of the only –Ash Wednesday– novels still in print and readily accessible).

Posted by: Meredith at January 4, 2005 04:11 PM

Meredith, yes. That’s a very good point. One of the crucial functions of storytelling is the way it helps people come to grips with otherwise unbearable facts and events. That’s what horror movies are all about, too, confronting your worst fears, and setting up scenarios whereby you overcome them. Or not.

Posted by: sara at January 4, 2005 04:21 PM