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One is a Tragedy, A Thousand's A Statistic

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Jan. 30, 2021
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The original quote from which the title is derived is attributed to Joseph Stalin. And while it can sound cynical and harsh, it is unfortunately true: the human mind boggles beyond a cut off point when it comes to grasping numbers tangibly, not theoretically. When the numbers become too high, it's hard to conceptualize the sheer span of impact of any concept, from death to poverty to gallons of water. And if it's hard to conceptualize, it's hard to feel strong emotions about it.

That's why it is a lot easier to generate an emotional reaction when focusing the impact of something to a single, or very few entities, rather than talk in big aggregates. When people turn into numbers, it's hard to relate. But when whatever we're talking about happens to a baby, or a child, or a young or older person we can tangibly think about, or look at, then we immediately make the emotional connection required for that impact to resonate with us.

That's why visualizing scale is extremely important. The gif accompanying this article shows in a very concrete, visual manner, the number of dead during WWII per country. The red column is that of the USSR.

As you watch the tower of red dots go on and on and on, how does it feel? Would it feel the same if you were just told that the military casualties of WWII for the USSR were a little over 13,5 million?

Keeping this concept in mind when creating art, a balance has to be struck between scale and focus. For the impact of something that is supposed to affect many people to resonate with an audience, a tried and true method is to ease the viewers (or readers) into the experience by focusing on a single unit- be that a single character or a small numbered group of characters that the audience can know and identify with.

During the development of the plot, reveal the scope of what is happening to the focused-on characters by ‘zooming out’ in a sense, to visually show how many more have been subjected to the same experience. It's highly likely the audience will then feel the tragedy resonate within, not only for the one person, but for the entire statistic.

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comment

anonymous?

usedbooks at 11:15AM, Jan. 31, 2021

I feel like the movie Independence Day did an excellent job with this and serves as a pretty good model for disaster fiction in general. Have a cast from different areas and walks of life. They are each profoundly affected. Show a few scenes with the scope of it. Reveal the extent at the proper moment in the correct act, but focus on the cast.

bravo1102 at 2:52PM, Jan. 30, 2021

In war you can do big picture with one character with one scene. The aftermath scenes among the dead and dying. Just having a character walk through a hospital or a field of abandoned vehicles and the big picture is glimpsed. You can have the whole Gulf War in a tank turret and then a walk on the highway of death the Iraqi army retreated along and that's the bug and small.

bravo1102 at 2:45PM, Jan. 30, 2021

You want readers to see the big picture you have to have characters throughout that picture. That's why Andre stays in Moscow after Borodino, but Natalie's family goes to the provinces and another character is with the wounded and another is with the raiding cossacks while Andre is among the retreating French. Throughout the catastrophe of Napoleon's invasion of Russia, there is a character there to experience it. That's how War and Peace covers the whole broad picture. Someone is on the ground experiencing it so the reader sees the worms eye view of the big disaster. Borodino had four characters in four different places seeing different aspects of the battle. Put them together in the whole narrative there big picture comes into focus.

PaulEberhardt at 10:42AM, Jan. 30, 2021

When you try to portray events that affect many thousand or perhaps even millions or billions of people, extremely large casts may work to some extent. Each of them must be in some way relatable and it must be clear that each of them is an example for their respective group of people. Obviously, those few authors who can handle that at all, have to think their story threads through with extreme care. - Let's just say, I know why I've always stayed clear from stories on large scales, myself. They're not for the lazy.

PaulEberhardt at 10:33AM, Jan. 30, 2021

That gif is quite mind-boggling, once you realise what it is about, and you chose it well, because it still works only on an intellectual level, really. Human minds just aren't wired to truly grasp the enormity of this kind of thing. The world would certainly be a nicer place if we were just a little bit better at it.

PaulEberhardt at 10:33AM, Jan. 30, 2021

I'll second that! Especially SciFi writers sometimes seem to have absolutely no sense of scale whatsoever. I don't just mean those astronomical figures no one will properly understand anyway, but I keep seeing many of them fail on small scales as well, those we could actually grasp.

Ozoneocean at 6:51AM, Jan. 30, 2021

Seriously, it's a very important lesson. Too often in fantasy and Scifi ignorant creators keep on raising the stakes beyond what is usefully comprehensible. They attempt to provide some weak perspective by showing a lovestory in the foreground to their tale of global, galactic tragedy, but it's a meaningless comparison. The bigger your stakes/story/concept the more clever you have to be to structure things in order to give people a meaningful perspective, or else you just have to blur out the huge thing and just keep it as a fuzzy backdrop to your main story- like the Napoleonic wars in War and Peace, or indeed the Eastern front...

Ozoneocean at 4:37AM, Jan. 30, 2021

I agree massively with this in every sense on a huge, overweening, impossibly large galactic scale :D

Ozoneocean at 4:36AM, Jan. 30, 2021

YES


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