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Do Stories Need To Be Connected To Morals Or Societal Issues? by Simon Higgins

For several years I’ve had the privilege of studying screenwriting for animation and working, on and off, as a screenwriter in China. One of my tasks was to find an English name for the successful animated series my host company creates, broadcasted by China’s CCTV network to around one fifth of the human population. The series is hosted by two manga-style toddler characters, twins, a boy and girl. Each instalment has a moral point to it, usually a Confucian idea about the orderly and fair treatment of others in family and society. So I suggested, ‘Gemini Fables’, implying a Chinese Aesop, to define the series outside Asia. My colleagues agreed enthusiastically.

Do all stories, even the entertaining, also need to teach, warn or touch some moral or societal ‘issue’? Some say writing must be issue connected and morally driven to win awards and get published in school-age reading markets.  

But we can all cite books that simply set out to tell a story that taps into the human condition and helps us to understand it.

Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is a powerful story tackling big issues: racism, justice, the nature of courage, heroic pacifism versus cowardly aggression. It’s an immortal novel packing lots of moral punch.

James Joyce’s Ulysses is also a powerful, long-surviving and challenging novel, though for very different reasons. This tale is a ‘stream of consciousness’ window into man’s mad, busy mind. The novel is a mirror, but doesn’t attach to a specific issue beyond the human condition. People, in Joyce’s vision, wander the universe trying to think their way to clarity but instead just run endless mental loops. Given when Ulysses was written,  this hefty experimental tome was stunningly ahead of its time. I thanked the great man for it two years ago as I sat at his piano in the Dublin Writer’s Museum. If you ever get to Ireland, the Bram Stoker and James Joyce displays in the DWM are really worth visiting.

Both To Kill A Mockingbird and Ulysses, though so different, are surprisingly important in the canon of literature. I often say there would have been no Barack Obama in the White House, had Harper Lee not written that book. Ulysses helped inspire an entire genre of stories and novels, plus decades of philosophical and anthropological books, papers, and discussions about existence.

I think our focus should be craft quality and the underpinning passion driving our work, not which pigeon-holes the book may later be slotted into by others, including publishers. Just tell your fabulous tale and let posterity decide the nature of its contribution.

Sometimes writers name something haphazardly, only to strike a chord with others. In my novel Thunderfish, young orphaned rich girl Kira Beaumont flees the heartless paparazzi after her father’s funeral on a privately owned hi-tech ship, the Ithaca. Following an attack at sea and a deep personal crisis, Kira winds up captaining her own Russian Kilo Class attack sub bought on the black market, as does the reader.

I named Kira’s first ship simply after the first Greek island that came to mind. In my backstory, the Beaumont family owned a shipping empire, ala the Onassis Clan, so I envisioned a fleet of tankers plus luxury ‘retreat’ yachts and hydrofoils, each named after a different Greek island.

Years later, I stumbled on a very generous, positive review of the novel. It said I’d named the ship Ithaca because that destination was the home-kingdom of Odysseus (a.k.a. Ulysses) as he ‘crossed the wine-dark sea’ in Homer’s epic. I was apparently signalling a hero’s journey structure to the reader, tastefully invoking classical lore, yet delivering what remained ‘a thoroughly modern, accessible adventure’.

Wow! Thanks! I’ll take all that (far too kind and undeserved as it is – just don’t tell anyone, heh?). But my point is this; work with a strong, structured idea, let passion drive the writing, and you’ll tend to find ideas flow easily and drop into place in your overall vision. Don’t get caught up with the morality tale factor. That will take care of itself, or won’t need to.

So, is Thunderfish in the end an issue book? After all, it did get a Children’s Book Council of Australia Notable Book listing, enjoyed an audio edition with Bolinda Audio, generated two sequels, Under No Flag and In the Jaws of the Sea, and was looked at by two Hollywood studios (though, alas, no film project went ahead).

Hell, yes. Kira’s crew defend refugees on the high seas, fighting modern pirates. There are plenty of human rights, justice and crime issues, all right there. I hope that Thunderfish also does contain that universal hero’s journey, told with modernity yet relatable to the old classical style. In her way, Kira steals fire from heaven to take on monsters – and purge her own demons  – and we get to see inside her head a lot. I guess Thunderfish does tie in with Ulysses after all.

If we are delivering an engrossing story, perhaps we don’t need to hunt too hard for meaning as we draft it? If we concentrate on the quality, we can rest secure in the fact that almost every tale raises some strong point in the end, simply because humans – we who live in conflict and uncertainty, desperate for signs of meaning in our universe – are the players in it.


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