Men in Boats

Several weeks ago, my husband and I streamed Das Boot [The Boat], the fictional war epic about a German U-boat and its crew, written and directed in 1981 by Wolfgang Petersen. It was a riveting film, all 3 hours and 48 minutes of it: the claustrophobic submarine, the men crammed aboard, old veterans, untested newbies, the steely captain, the naive war correspondent—and then the Allied warships tracking it, their ominous sonar pings more dramatic than any Hollywood soundtrack.

We watched the film shortly before this year’s Boston Marathon. The news coverage of last year’s attack recalled what I considered the most riveting piece of television journalism in the attack’s aftermath: the fugitive brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev hiding in the backyard boat. Well, actually, that isn’t quite accurate. What riveted my attention was a tarp-covered boat. For almost two hours!

Good films, good novels and yes, good news stories have much to teach those of us who write fiction and creative non-fiction. Here are a few of my thoughts:

Human lives and stories are the heart and pulse of drama, real or fiction. Each submariner in Das Boot is a unique person, not an ideologue. Yes, they’re Germans fighting the Americans, but they’re real guys, frightened, heroic, homesick, cynical, some likeable, some not. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev did not fit our image of a terrorist. Friends described him as engaging and popular. Many were certain the police had tagged the wrong suspect. And those sleepy eyes and tousled hair…this guy is a cold-hearted killer?

Outcomes remain in doubt. Would the submariners survive? Who of them might die? Would Tsarnaev come out of that boat shooting? Or would he kill himself and others with the explosives he may or may not have had? It’s hard to leave the TV or a scene or a chapter when you aren’t certain when a dramatic situation will resolve itself. Or how.

The audience, spectators or readers care about the outcome. By the end of Das Boot, I found myself rooting for the submariners. Even though they were our WWII enemies! This is the power of an excellent storyteller, who creates characters we empathize with, even if we don’t like who they are. As for Tsarnaev in that boat, it would be easy to say we cared about this outcome because we wanted him caught and punished. But was it really that simple? I suspect many watching the news footage didn’t want him to kill himself or be killed by the police. There was too much we wanted to know about him, most pressingly what happened that made this young man a terrorist, in short “why this guy?”

Tragedy lies at the heart of a great story: In the classic sense, tragedy is that awful outcome that should not have occurred but does, that seems at first glance senseless and almost random, until we trace it to its roots and discover how step by inexorable step, events are set in motion that cannot be called back. It is this that arouses in us, the onlookers, the pity and fear Aristotle described in his definition of tragedy: fear of human fallibility that makes each of us susceptible to acts that once set in motion lead to tragic consequences, pity for those ensnared in horrific events beyond their will and intelligence to alter.

These are some elements that I think make for riveting stories. What do you think: any thoughts to add?