Once upon a time the world was all bright and shiny and wonderful, and then we humans arrived… oh, wait. That’s the PC version of the story. The real story is more along the lines of “it was a dark and stormy night…”
And no, I’m actually not talking about beginnings. I’m talking about cues. Mental short-cuts. The things that turn cliches into cliches as it were, which is of course the fodder of writers good, bad, and everything in between (as well as those who live in different universes because some things tend to hold true everywhere).
When a story starts with “once upon a time” it sets up the expectation of a particular kind of story (namely something suitable for small children but with darker undertones and probably a history that if you trace back will end up involving a lot of sex and violence because that’s the way these things evolve). If the start is “It was a dark and stormy night”, the expectation is different. Of course, back when Bulwer-Lytton started a novel with “It was a dark and stormy night”, it was a fresh, original thing to do (we’ll leave the rest of that goat-gagging opening sentence of his for posterio…er… posterity). And of course, there’s always the twist on the familiar, like Pratchett (or Gaiman, or just possibly Good Omens itself, since both authors insist there are sections in that book that neither one of them wrote. Self-aware manuscripts… scary) did: “It wasn’t a dark and stormy night. It should have been, but it wasn’t.” Naturally, with a cue like that you know to expect unusual twists on the familiar, and Good Omens doesn’t disappoint.
Why it doesn’t is related to how we remember things. Memory isn’t like a set of little self-contained filmlets. It’s more like a vast, sprawling database where you need to look up fifty different linked things before the one you’re actually checking makes sense. Our brains do all that looking automatically, and they optimize to grab all the related stuff that seems likely to be wanted. So, you’re driving on the weekend and you’ll head to your place of work if you’re not thinking about where you’re actually wanting to go. Or you read about ruins and your mind fills in all the blanks with everything you know about ruins, building up a picture that might be vine-covered decaying stone with picturesque oozing from every crack – or it might be stark white stone work in the Greek hills. Whatever you think of as being quintessentially ruins, your brain will load when you see the word “ruins”.
Since children’s fairy tales often start with “once upon a time”, that phrase says that what follows will be some kind of fairy-tale-like offering. And so it goes.
Loving descriptions of a man with words like “virile” are as good as setting off a flashing neon sign that says “love interest”. Shadows and blank windows have people looking around nervously and making sure the lights are turned up high because things are about to get scary. And so it goes. If you take a tour through TVTropes you’ll see thousands of examples (please allow plenty of time – that site is the most amazing time sink), including a whole bunch that you didn’t realize your brain uses as a shortcut because they’re so pervasive (ever wondered why a certain kind of film/TV villain always has a cultured accent? Imagine Lusciou…. er, Lucius Malfoy with a cockney accent and you have your answer).
Where PC short-circuits this process is by making certain shortcuts “bad”. The problem with that is that cliches often get to be that way because there’s a seed of truth buried in there. The trick is to use the cliche to illuminate other truths – which can’t be done if certain words and phrases aren’t permitted. From not allowing certain phrases or words, it’s a short short step to blocking certain thoughts, and once you’ve done that you’ve blocked off all those links inside our heads – and made it a whole lot more difficult for us to make any judgment. The links happen for a reason – our ancestors survived by being able to make snap decisions and mostly get them right.
Gosh. I wonder if the powers that be are intentionally trying to short-circuit the ability to think? Nah… the ones I’m thinking of couldn’t think their way out of a wet paper bag. It must just be sappy romantic fluffy-bunny-ness.