I want to take a minute and talk about Kurt Vonnegut because Kurt Vonnegut believed stories are what cause wars. Kurt Vonnegut didn’t like wars, because he was in one. He was an American soldier in World War II who was promptly captured, and taken by the Germans to a city called Dresden full of art museums and civilians.
And Kurt Vonnegut was there, held in a P.O.W. camp underground, when the U.S. and Great Britain bombed Dresden, leaving it a smoking ruin full of dead families – and alive P.O.W.s, saved by their underground location. The Germans put Americans to work recovering the bodies of all the dead men, women, and children so they could be disposed of. At one point, there were so many dead people in the wreckage they couldn’t be recovered anymore. Flamethrowers were used, to just burn all of the victims.
When Kurt Vonnegut, who was a writer, returned after the war he was planning to write a standard heroic book, one with manly men who sling guns around and spit tough lines from the corners of their mouths that aren’t dangling cigars. After a conversation with another P.O.W. friend and his wife, Kurt decided to tell the truth instead. The truth is that families like yours and mine get burned up and killed, even by the good guys.
I have nuanced and complicated opinions which aren’t easy to guess. I think we’re all grateful the Allies fought against Nazi Germany and ended their plans, even at great cost; and we should all acknowledge constant inaction in the face of evil is not desirable. Saying something is always good or always bad is reductive, false. But all of that is unrelated to Kurt Vonnegut’s point.
Kurt believed that stories, which we all grow up on, and see, and hear, and make, taught us very wrong. Stories have taught us that guns are tough and cool and people who kill other people are very heroic; they’ve also taught us that everyone who is against our goals or very different from us is bad and evil. Little kids – mostly boys – love to hold toy guns and pretend they are killing you. And adults – mostly men – all over the country love to buy real guns and yell very loudly about their love for them, and practice what it would be like to be killing people, at shooting ranges, or in their heads.
The truth is that when people use guns, a lot of people’s lives are ruined forever. If it happens overseas, you might not hear much about it; you’ll see pictures in the news magazines and hear from the parents and wives sometimes. If it happens here, in a school or a movie theater, we see the heartbreak and pain. You’d think boys would stop pointing guns around acting like they’re going to kill. And the little kids too.
In a bigger, broader sense, Kurt believed that the structure of stories have taught us wrong. The fact, for example, that they have a beginning and end. They have a climax and a confrontation and someone does something important that makes everything come to a head. It makes us feel like in our own lives, we should go ahead and do something important that makes everything come to a head. For a lot of people, that means shooting guns. Even the symbol of shooting a gun – the idea of it – is so ingrained in us that it makes us feel powerful, the natural response of a hero, a main character.
Except real life is not a movie. There is no great catharsis and then conclusion. Life goes on. For many people, life goes on without a friend or family member, or with the nightmares and anxiety disorders of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. There isn’t a beginning and end to the story. There is a tomorrow, and all of its problems.
Screenwriters and good novelists are taught the Three-Act Structure. Listen to this because if you don’t know it, you’re going to start noticing it from now on. Every book, play, and movie follows a basic blueprint. In Act 1, we’re introduced to the people and their problems and something comes up that forces a big change. There is a plot twist and then Act 2, where they face a lot of obstacles leading up to an even bigger twist.
You’ll know Act 2 is coming to an end when you see the False Resolution: when it looks like our heroes have won, the goal is about to be accomplished, but then everything goes wrong. Start looking for the False Resolution near the end of every movie – you’ll start seeing the formula in action. I haven’t found one without it yet. Finally in Act 3 comes the climax, the big loud gunfight and explosion show, and then the resolution.
The Story is so deeply a part of our psyche it can be hard to convince our brains real life doesn’t work that way. There’s this famous rule of storytelling called Chekhov’s Gun, which says: if there’s a gun on stage in the first act it must be fired by the final one. In real life, there is no curtain. A real person gets hurt if a gun goes off. And it’s okay if it doesn’t. In fact, the world would be a whole lot better place if no guns ever went off. Vonnegut spent a lot of time trying to tell us this. Now Vonnegut is dead.
Me, I’m glad we stopped the Nazis. I’ll be glad if we stop dictators and human-rights abusers and dangerous, stability-threatening regimes. Very glad. But we have to know going into it that there is no three-act structure, no resolution, no heroism in using life-ending weaponry either as a man or as a country, no story to put on the shelf and just be done with.
If you do something because it has to be done, you have to be ready: to commit to the guilt and the consequences and the real innocent people’s pain and deaths, and all the bodies you’ll have a responsibility to pick up the next morning among the rubble or make somebody put a flamethrower to. What there is, is tomorrow, and all its problems too.