Robert McKee (2003) offers a key insight to business executives: “The great irony of existence is that what makes life worth living does not come from the rosy side… the energy to live comes from the dark side. It comes from everything that makes us suffer. As we struggle against these negative powers, we’re forced to live more deeply, more fully” (McKee, 2003, p.7). It is in this darkness where we find the power behind stories.
All the top-rated movies and series know this ingredient, and know how to use it well. Notice how progressively dark the Harry Potter series became over the years all the while retaining and gaining even more audience momentum. Recall how dark Nolan’s Batman trilogy was. Notice how even in the more family-friendly Marvel superhero universe there is a critical point where we believe the hero or heroine is really going to be thwarted at the hands of the ‘bad guy.’ Game of Thrones is rated by some as the best TV series thus far, yet we watch as all of our favorite characters get slaughtered like flies at any moment’s notice. We gobble up the story of a failed teacher running around season after season cooking meth with a juvenile delinquent, and all the while we cry, ‘Encore!’ We turn, for a moment, an introspective eye on this ‘ingredient’ that drives stories—this dark side—and ask how does this help business-marketing models?
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Concurrent to my M.C. program I am finishing my M.A. in Applied Philosophy—don’t ask me why. At one point I found theodicy fascinating—a.k.a., the problem of evil. One way to represent the problem in simple terms is this: if there is a god, and if god is all good, why does he allow evil to happen (like natural disasters, murders, rape, suffering in its countless forms, etc.)? Without burdening you with the plethora of philosophical discourse—some of which I’m sure is not human parlance—I humbly offer my stance in a nutshell: evil is real. Evil can never be justified to attain some perceived ‘greater good.’ Evil is not simply the absence of good. All attempts to define in concrete terms the definition of an all-powerful, all-loving deity always come up short. With the ocean of philosophical knowledge at our disposal, including five thousand versions of the bible, the best conclusion still is one that doesn’t provide a very explanatory answer: evil is part of a divine mystery. It can destroy us, or worse, completely rob us of hope in humanity—a.k.a., horrendous evils as Marilyn McCord Adams would put it.
What’s my point? My point is that, at a subconscious level, human beings ‘understand’ that evil is a part of existence. We yearn desperately to make sense of it, but fail. We often need help to face the dark, something that, for good reason, we usually avoid. The best stories will help us face the dark; they will represent the dark in full color and reveal any trace of redeeming value, and we will exalt the storyteller for achieving this.
Facing darkness is not just about checking off one step in the Hero’s Journey a la Joseph Campbell—yes, we know the hero must be thwarted along the way. I think McKee is informing storytellers—writers and marketing strategists alike—that this principle of engaging your audience concerns staring your fear, or enemy, or obstacle square in the face and representing it well. When you frame a story or a marketing model minding this principle, you engage the affective attention of the audience. You generate hope where it is hard for the audience to see it. “All great stories illuminate the dark side” (McKee, 2003, p.7). The ‘bad guys’ will always win along the way; whether we can leverage the opportunities therein successfully is up to the storyteller.
Adams, M. M., & Adams, R. M. (Eds.). (1990). The problem of evil. New York: Oxford University Press.
McKee, R. (2003, June). Storytelling that moves people: A Conversation with Screenwriting Coach Robert McKee. Harvard Business Review, R0306B, 5-8.
Munro, S. (2012, October 29). 10 Awesome Movies Where the Bad Guy Wins. Retrieved from http://whatculture.com/film/10-awesome-movies-where-the-bad-guy-wins.php.
Ted-Ed. (2012, December 4). What makes a hero? – Matthew Winkler. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hhk4N9A0oCA.