How Marxism Shapes the Way We Tell Stories

Ultimately, what we understand about stories is what we understand about how to live

How Marxism Shapes the Way We Tell Stories
Change is very, very, very weird...and it's a crucial part of how we make sense o the world around us. —Photo by Francisco J. Villena / Unsplash

Simply put, genres are story classifications. Thanks to genre, people can decide if a story is for them without knowing anything about the plot or characters or premise. If you’re not into horror movies, you can presume that there’s little chance you’ll enjoy Alien (even though it’s a fucking classic and an excellent goddamn movie, please watch it).

But when you ask people to define genre, they’ll usually resort to explaining the signifiers of a genre: love stories, for instance, have two people who fall in love with each other...except when it’s a love story about falling out of love. Or a love story that doesn’t even feature two people, or features a dozen people. That’s what happens when you use signifiers to define a thing: there’s always exceptions, which blurs the definition until you’re eventually shrugging and going, “I don’t know, it just feels like a love story.” Editor Shawn Coyne of Story Grid proposes a more scientific definition: a genre is defined by the story’s central “value shift.”

“What’s a value shift?”

The value shift in a story is the central, primal change that occurs within a story. For instance, in Alien, the story hinges on Ripley’s survival, which means the changes in the story swing between two poles: life and death. In Whiplash, I’d argue the story hinges on the character’s sense of self-recognition, swinging between the poles of acclaim and obscurity. While change can occur on multiple spectrums, a story’s primary change is what defines its genre.

Genre, value shifts, & the protagonist’s material need

In Alien, the life/death value shifts mean that Ripley’s central need is to survive. In Whiplash, the recognition/obscurity value shifts mean that Andrew’s central need is to perform. There’s a direct relationship between a story’s genre and the material needs of the protagonist(s), which makes sense if you think about it: if a character’s central need is to survive, that’s going to shape the kinds of situations your character will face, the conventions your story will employ, and ultimately the most satisfying conclusion of your story. A story where a character’s survival is at stake will (most likely) not end with a triumphant drum solo.

Everything that signifies the genre—scenes, conventions, central climax—hinges on what the central character needs. Do they need recognition? Safety? Self-actualization? Classical and genre-bending stories both engage multiple needs at once; for instance, The Hobbit affirms Bilbo’s need for survival and his need to embrace adventure. The story is the transformation the character undergoes as they attempt to fulfill their needs.

In other words, story is about material needs and the changes necessary to meet them.

Stories and “the negation of the negation”

There’s reams of books on storytelling and writing; I’ve read dozens of them, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s out there. A few of the storytelling books I’ve read mention ideas like “the negation of the negation,” or “the unity of opposites.” In writing terms, the negation of the negation refers to the moment that progressively larger developments have forced a character to change. One of my favorite “negation of the negation” moments is when the protagonist of Flight, an alcoholic pilot under investigation after a plane crash, finally comes clean to himself and to the investigators. It’s an incredible moment depicting a liar pushed to his absolute limit until he becomes an honest man.

The unity of opposites is a similar term: it refers to a dramatic situation wherein the protagonist and antagonist want mutually exclusive things. They are unable to walk away from each other, and they are unable to compromise, which means the forces they each represent must confront one another until one of them prevails (and likely changes as a result). In philosophy, the “unity of opposites” goes by another term: dialectics. Dialectics is the philosophy of understanding change, of the nature of identity and how it preserves itself through transformation. The Greeks called dialectics the “law of motion,” a logic pertaining to how something can be both itself and not itself.

For example, let’s say we’ve known each other since we were both babies; I could say that I’ve known you for 30 or so years. And yet, you’re not the same being you were 30 years ago—you’re larger, more conscious, and fully developed. Not a single physical cell in your body is the same as when you were a baby, but we accept that you’re still the same being—your identity has persisted, despite the fact that you have as much in common physically with your infant self as you do with a complete stranger.

Dialectics is also about change through the confrontation between societal forces, between ideas, between different parts of the same person. That confrontation changes the forces involved, so that even the ‘winner’ is different from what it used to be. Thesis + antithesis = synthesis. Change through conflict, change through the unity of opposites.

In layman’s terms, that’s dialectics—the philosophy of change. But what does that have to do with fiction?

The way I see it, stories are fundamentally dialectical. Stories are illustrations of change. It’s why theater writers and novelists borrow terms from dialectics as often as they do. When people experience change, it’s the result of a contradiction in their lives that has fully matured into conflict.

  • A ambitious police lieutenant gets a chance to take on a case where he’ll actually do some good, but he’ll need to risk his career aspirations to do it (Lt. Daniels, The Wire).
  • A woman desperately holds her family together, but she’s put in a position where she’ll need to kill her husband to protect her son (Wendy Torrance, The Shining).

A character wants two things that can’t both be true, or wants one thing and needs the opposite; in either case, they need to transform in order to resolve their story. They’ll need to transform. Story is watching that process unfold over the course of a novel, a film, a series, or a song.

Ideas vs. conditions

Dialectics comes in two flavors: idealist and material. Idealistic dialectics presumes that the world changes because our ideas change; humankind create or discover new ideas, and society changes as a result. It’s where we get “idealism,” the belief that we can improve the world if we can just get people to think better thoughts. Material dialectics, however, presumes the opposite: that society changes, and this is what results in new ideas. So what causes society to change? Material conditions: how the economy is set up, who owns property, where production is centered.

In the US, women won the right to vote in 1920 after decades of struggle. An idealist dialectician would presume that feminist writers and activists popularized woman’s suffrage, which is what led to mass struggle (and eventual victory). A materialist dialectician might look at the development of urban industrialism, the rise in women's employment, and their increased economic independence as a result. While the writers and activists played an important role, that role would have been impossible without the political/economic developments laying the groundwork.

I am, as you might have guessed, a firm materialist when it comes to societal change. I’m also a firm materialist when it comes to storytelling.

Storytelling is Marxist

Stories are dialectical. They portray the transformation of an individual or a group via the same mechanics that society itself changes: contradiction, conflict, then synthesis.

But they’re not just dialectical.

By what mechanics do characters change? Do they wake up one day and decide to transform who they are? Stories like that feel false to us because they’re false in fact: people change when they’re forced to by forces outside their control. For Bilbo to become an adventurer, the dwarves have to show up on his doorstep. For Ripley to become a badass xenomorph-killer, she needs to encounter an actual xenomorph.

In other words, people transform as a result of material circumstances.

That brings us back to genre. A character’s material needs determine what kind of story they’re in. If you’re a babysitter on Halloween night who’s fighting to survive a killer in a Captain Kirk mask, you’re in a horror story. If you’re a student on the cusp of adulthood experiencing heartbreak for the first time, you’re in a coming-of-age story. (If you’re both, you’re in the kind of horror movie Mike Flanagan or Ari Aster would write). How and to what degree the main character (the stand-in for the audience) transforms is dictated by material conditions.

In other words, what stories deal with dialectical materialism, or as it's more commonly called, Marxism.

What does it matter that storytelling is Marxist?

Obviously, you don’t need to be a Marxist to be a storyteller, but it’s worth noting that the philosophical underpinning of contemporary story structure has a lot in common with Marxist theories of change. Almost any contemporary story abides by a single premise: material forces compel the individual/society to make choices that shape the individual/society in both surprising and inevitable ways. We’re not 100% internally driven, but our environments and our material needs determine, in part, the path (genre) we’re on. That matters.

Stories are about change because they’re a representation of life, and life features constant change. How we respond to the changes around us is what determines where our lives go. Understanding how change operates in stories equips us to cope with transformation in our real, actual lives.

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