Where Are We Going?

For a long time “edgy” was a buzz word in Christian fiction. I frequently scoffed (or railed or ranted — take your pick 😉 ) at the term because those using it seemed oblivious to what the world considers edgy.

For example, a few months back, in doing some agent research, I ran across an interview with a fantasy writer. Besides comments about her agent, she discussed her latest work. At one point the interviewer asked about one part of the story. The writer admitted she thought she’d get dinged by reviewers because of the edgy content, but surprisingly, no. The scene in question? A human character having sex with his dragon. Her conclusion? With sex, anything goes these days.

I find that content and that conclusion disgusting, but not surprising. This is the “edgy” the world knows — the boundary-pushing against society’s acceptable. Or not. As this author noted, including bestiality in her novel didn’t raise anyone’s ire. Apparently the edge has moved beyond kinky sex. What’s next?

What drives this mad dash to the edge seems to be the pursuit of the new and different. “Fresh” is another term bandied about. Our entertainment-driven (read hedonistic) culture must have the Something that feels like it’s never been done before. We crave that thing that will pique our curiosity, give us a jolt of excitement, cause us to wonder, take us out of our mundane state and transport us Elsewhere. We want to live in a constant state of orgasm.

Once these desires were the signs of mid-life crisis. Now the entire society seems to suffer from perennial adolescent angst, a chasing after Anything, as long as it isn’t boring or ordinary.

In literature we no longer want to be hooked by the end of the first chapter or by the first page, first paragraph, or first line. We must now be hooked by the cover. If it’s not eye-catching, or somehow “sexy,” then it simply is not a good book. Yes, covers are now to be judged because we need to excite buyers before they ever put their hands on the product.

The question is, should we Christians play along? In his most recent blog post “Pushing Your Imagination Envelop” author and friend Mike Duran said

Maybe more than anything else, our culture’s “unacknowledged legislators” [storytellers] are looking for big ideas, new twists, and innovative slants. Yes, it’s evidence that our culture is growing increasingly jaded. But for those of us who traffic in imagination, it’s also evidence that the bar has been raised.

So if you think you’ve nailed your story premise, before you do anything else, find the limits of your credulity, the edges of your imagination envelope and… push it [boldface emphasis added].

I can’t help but wonder if the bar hasn’t been lowered, not raised. Once, writers like George Herbert, John Donne, John Bunyan, Edmund Spencer, and Alexander Pope wrote with “great depth” as a result of their “immersion in Christian and Biblical culture” (see Wikipedia articles on these authors). Now, it seems “great depth” comes from our great imagination.

True, an imaginative work like The Shack by Paul Young caught the fancy of those looking for something startling, even shocking. But depth? There was plenty of imagination, certainly, but little truth. Lots of “edgy” theology slamming against the Bible’s authority.

As I see it, truth puts parameters around our imagination. Our sinful, deluded hearts can conceive of all sorts of evil, and the world seems eager to trundle after the most repugnant fare being offered.

Christians, however, aren’t wandering aimlessly about. We aren’t in search of a quick fix, don’t need to live for the next thrill ride, the next mind-numbing gimmick. We don’t need to medicate our sorrows or drown our pain. Or we ought not.

You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God (James 4:4).

Now there’s an edgy premise.

Art: Painting Inside The Lines

From time to time I read comments or blog posts alluding to the skilled craftsmen God commissioned to build the tabernacle and all its accouterments (see for example Stephen Burnett’s article today at Speculative Faith).

The consensus is that extrapolating from visual art to written art is an appropriate way of looking at the verses surrounding the mention of these men. Hence, we conclude such things as God loves beautiful writing, God gave wordsmiths their skill, and artistic expression is a part of worship.

I’ve heard other conclusions that stretch the text (the most common one being, art is not utilitarian but for beauty alone). The interesting thing that grabbed my attention this time as I read Exodus 31, however, was this phrase: that they may make all that I have commanded you.

Not only did God give the size of the table, the ark, the altar, the individual curtains that made up the tabernacle, and those that served as an outer covering, He specified their designs and those on the priestly garments. He detailed the lamp and the incense and the laver and the utensils.

Beyond commanding this construction, though, God showed Moses exactly what it was supposed to look like:

According to all that I am going to show you, as the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furniture, just so you shall construct it.

See that you make them after the pattern for them, which was shown to you on the mountain.

– Exodus 25:9, 40

So here’s the point. God wanted skilled craftsmen, but He gave them, in story terms, the premise, even outlined the plot and described the characters. The skilled craftsmen were not to create surprise twists or add unexpected characters. In fact, they were warned not to create a new and different incense to burn before the LORD, a command two of Aaron’s sons ignored and paid for with their lives.

If God gave the craftsmen the exact pattern, was what they produced truly artistic? Weren’t they merely coloring within the lines?

I tend to think their work was indeed creative or God would not have singled out Bezalel and Oholiab by name as men who He filled with the “Spirit of God in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all kinds of craftsmanship,” nor would He have specified that “in the hearts of all who are skillful I have put skill.”

Clearly, not any old Joseph would do when it came to making this house of God, even though the craftsmen didn’t bring originality to their work, at least not in the way we normally think of originality.

But wasn’t their pattern much like a writer’s basic five story patterns from which he must choose (man in conflict with man, self, nature, society, or God)? The real art, then, isn’t in trying to come up with a new and improved pattern but in producing quality work within the lines.

I think about this in particular when it comes to a Christian telling the old, old story in fiction. The gospel message is familiar, so some writers want to write from a different pattern, some want to color outside the lines.

On the other hand, some may be coloring too softly or too evenly, not showing any depth perception through shadow and shading. Their work seems flat, monochromatic, dull.

Perhaps we Christian writers need to focus more on the execution of our skill within the lines and less on trying to make up new patterns.

Published in: on September 16, 2010 at 5:19 pm  Comments (3)  
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Premise – The Heart of Stories

From time to time I’ve said that “story” trumps all in fiction. In other words, the story is more important than the setting, the message, even the characters. It’s more important than the plot.

Say what? Isn’t “story” equal to “plot”? Not really. The story is the essence of fiction, the “what happened” stripped of all the subplots and side trips.

The plot, on the other hand, comprises the main events of the story.

Avatar, for example, is a story about a paraplegic fighting against the military/industrial complex from Earth to save the native people on a planet devoid of modern technology. The plot involves the steps the main character took to accomplish this storyline. (For a simplified, and spoof-ish, look at the plot line, see this short rendition.)

Here’s another one: A Civil-War era Southern belle fights society and her own wrong beliefs to gain the love of her life. Anyone familiar with Scarlet O’Hara will recognize that kernel as the storyline for Gone with the Wind. The plot for this thousand page story, however, would take considerably more space.

While these “what’s it about” lines don’t give details, they quickly let a reader (or an editor) know what they can expect within the pages of a novel.

Of course, an author must still write the story in an engaging way, but the first and foremost need for good fiction is a good story, or “premise.”

I’ve read work from different authors that showed a textured world or had interesting, even fun or tragic, characters. But something was missing. The story wandered, and I didn’t have the feeling that the author was taking me anywhere. The result was, I stopped caring, even about delightful, well painted, quirky characters. And if a reader stops caring, chances are he will also stop reading.

Today over at Novel Matters, guest blogger Ariel Allison Lawhead from the online book club She Reads discusses “premise.” She makes the observation that too many books are warmed over retellings of existent stories.

But some achieve a freshness that sets them apart.

How can a writer know what ideas are “fresh”? Well, it helps to read, I think. It helps to move from the first idea that presents itself to number four or fourteen. In other words, at this very beginning stage, it takes work.

Published in: on March 8, 2010 at 4:45 pm  Comments (2)  
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