What Postmodernism Gets Right


The Audacious Ride for Visions, painting by Leda Luss Luyken

When I first started examining postmodernism to know how precisely that way of looking at the world differed from what I was used to, my pastor at the time, Dale Burke, said that postmodernism is no more dangerous than modernism — neither one is a Biblical worldview but neither one is all wrong either.

He was right. And yet it seems so much easier to camp on the ways that postmodernism contradicts what I believe rather than affirming the things about this way of thinking that are helpful.

First, postmodernism is essentially a way of looking at the world that stands against the ideals of modernism — things like socially progressive trends; affirming the power of the human being to create, improve, and reshape the environment; and replacing the old with the new to facilitate the advance of science and technology.

One thing that seems true of postmodernism is that science and materialism is no longer the end of all knowledge. Instead, there’s a new awareness that there is spiritual knowledge — influences that can’t be scientifically defined or measured and a world beyond the material that can’t be quantified.

This is a good thing. In some ways it’s a replication of the difference between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the latter being the Jewish sect that didn’t believe in supernatural intervention in the world such as angels or visions or presumably, the Holy Spirit, and certainly not the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

It was the Pharisees that could say when Paul was arrested, Wait a minute; maybe he has seen an angel.

The point is, the refusal to see beyond the material world is a huge barrier to anyone coming to Christ. How do you explain God’s existence to someone who begins the discussion believing that the only viable proofs are material in nature? It’s like saying, Show me love.

Postmodernism reintroduces the spiritual into the conversation. Granted, another part of postmodernism wants to accept all and any spiritual experience as equally valid and true, so it’s still far from a Biblical position, but nevertheless, it seems to me more Pharisees were likely to believe Paul’s conversion on the Damascus road than Sadducees who thought communication with a supernatural being an impossibility.

Something else I think postmodernism has right is validating human experience. Today there’s much more emphasis put on a person’s story, and on story in general. Telling stories as opposed to delineating facts puts the heart back into history. How people feel and how they act as a result is a holistic approach to understanding others.

Of course, postmodernism misses again by thinking that no one can understand another person’s experiences because of the limitations of language and that all experiences, even those that clash, are equally true because they are true for each person in question.

The important thing for the Christian, I believe, is to pay attention to what our culture says and to measure it by the standard of God’s word. How others in society perceive the world matters a great deal.

In many respects, someone like Rob Bell (Love Wins) or Paul Young (The Shack) is doing nothing more than mirroring the thinking of the age. Christians can pooh-pooh those ideas and scorn those books, but we had better understand why so many people listened. Two of those reasons are things postmodernism gets right — stories touch our hearts and the spiritual is real.

Those things are consistent with a Biblical worldview, and it would be wise for us to admonish and teach and evangelize by capitalizing on exactly those things.

This post first appeared here in April 2012.

Jesus, The Storyteller


The Jesus Storybook Bible coverIn the last couple years I’ve been noticing how Jesus not only told parables to make some of His points when He was teaching, but He also answered questions from others by telling stories.

Luke contains a few examples of this:

And Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he replied, “Say it, Teacher.” (7:40 ff)

To which Jesus responded with a story.

But wishing to justify himself, [the lawyer] said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus replied and said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho . . . (10:29-30a)

This is the opening, of course, to the story we know as The Good Samaritan.

One of His disciples said to Him, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John also taught his disciples.”

After Jesus gave them an example of prayer (which we call the Lord’s Prayer), he proceeded to tell a story to illustrate a particular aspect of prayer:

Then He said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and goes to him at midnight and says to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves . . . (11:5)

Sometimes the story came after instruction. In this next example, a man asked Jesus to do something for him.

Someone in the crowd said to Him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”

Jesus responded with an admonition against greed, then he told a story to illustrate his point.

And He told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man was very productive. . . (12:16)

Jesus used this same method of teaching with His disciples:

Peter said, “Lord, are You addressing this parable to us, or to everyone else as well?” And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and sensible steward, whom his master will put in charge of his servants, to give them their rations at the proper time? (12:41-42)

Again, as part of a discussion about repentance, Jesus turned to a parable:

“I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” And He began telling this parable: “A man had a fig tree. . . (13:5-6a)

I could go on, but I think the point is clear: Jesus valued stories as a teaching tool.

One aspect of postmodern culture, which heavily influences society today, is an affinity for stories. How perfect, then, to bring friends and neighbors to the Bible.

Too many people think the Bible is a bunch of rules. Little do they realize how many stories there are, and none more pertinent than the ones Jesus told.

Interestingly, He also spoke in analogies. He referred to Himself as water and bread, a shepherd and a door. He called the Pharisees whitewashed sepulchers and a brood of vipers. He explained His ministry by comparing the people He came to save to a lost coin, a lost sheep, a wayward son.

Stories, analogies. His audience didn’t always track with Him. His disciples didn’t always get what He was saying. Sometimes they thought He was speaking metaphorically when He was being literal—like the times He told them He would die and rise again in three days.

Still, I think Jesus’s methods of teaching show a couple things: He wanted people to reason some things out for themselves and He understood the power of showing, not just telling.

Maybe He also just liked telling stories. He’s a creative God, after all. Maybe telling stories satisfied His creative urge during those ministry years. Or maybe He enjoyed feeding the people’s hearts as much as their heads and their bodies. After all, He’s also a kind and generous God, ready to give what we need.

And apparently, one of the things we need is stories.

Published in: on May 23, 2014 at 6:13 pm  Comments Off on Jesus, The Storyteller  
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Thoughts On Intellectual Rigor


The_Thinker,_RodinRecently I wrote an article playing off author Mike Duran’s post and follow-up responses about Christian speculative fiction. As I wrote my remarks, I realized toward the end that one phrase in particular gnawed at me: “intellectual rigor.” Christian fiction in general and speculative fiction in particular needs more intellectual rigor, according to one comment to the original post.

So what does that mean when it comes to fiction? Not the use of good hermeneutics on the way to a scintillating sermon, I’m fairly certain. That might be intellectually rigorous, but it wouldn’t be good fiction.

Are we talking about stories that only college professors will “get”? If so, then the complaint is really that all Christians aren’t college professors.

Ironic that one of the most brilliant college professors wrote one of the most widely read children’s fantasy series, and no one calls into question his intellectual rigor. People of all ages and all walks of life can understand the Narnia tales. They aren’t structured in a way that makes them difficult. Are they, therefore, lacking in intellectual rigor?

Some years ago I read a novel touted for its literary quality, so I decided I should read it as part of my writing education. The story had two point-of-view characters–sisters, as I recall.

One told her portion of the story in chronological fashion, starting at the beginning and working her way forward. The other, alternating with the first, told her portion looking back from the conclusion of the story, detailing the events in reverse order as they wound down to the start.

Of course, the reader is left to figure out this structure on her own. How many chapters did I flounder through, uncertain what had happened or when and to whom. The worst of it was, in the end, one sister dies. That’s it. Yes, it seems like a tragedy, but to what purpose? What’s the point, I thought as I closed the book.

Was that intellectually rigorous because I was confused most of the way through the book? In the same way that a puzzle is, I suppose. But I’ve worked many a puzzle and haven’t found my worldview challenged or my questions answered.

Ah, yes. There’s the rub. Unanswered questions are supposed to be a sign of intellectual rigor in this day and age. But why, I’ll never know. Knowledge leads to greater questions and more knowledge–just ask scientists working with DNA or those studying the God particle. Unanswered questions lead to . . . I’m not sure what. A repeat of the questions, perhaps? Asking them of a different source? But why? Some say the value is in the seeking rather than in the finding.

“Seeking” with no hope of finding reminds me of someone whose car is stuck in a mud puddle or a snow bank and he stomps hard and harder on the accelerator, as if spinning the wheels in place will actually get him somewhere. I don’t find this approach to learning to be intellectual or rigorous. It seems disingenuous and foolish.

God has a lot to say about foolishness and wisdom and about knowledge. But perhaps the greatest way His Word can help in unfolding what intellectual rigor in fiction should look like is through the fiction of the Bible–the stories people in the Bible told.

Jesus told the most stories, which we refer to as parables because they have a moral or point to them. In reality all good stories have a point (which is why I was so disappointed in the oddly structured literary novel I read which was mostly pointless). David’s counselor and friend Nathan told him a very pointed story. Several of the prophets told stories, too–fantasies, actually, because they included talking trees and such.

But here’s the thing. The people who told those stories did so to communicate something with their audience. They weren’t trying to obscure their point.

Why did they use a story then, instead of just coming right out and saying what they wanted to say? Because there is power in stories. Stories help us to see truth through someone else’s eyes rather than through our own biased view. Through stories we get to Truth by seeing past our own version of truth.

When David heard Nathan’s story, he saw clearly how shamefully he had used his faithful military commander Uriah by stealing his wife and having him killed, and he repented. When the Pharisees heard Jesus’s story about the shameful vineyard workers who kept beating the messengers who came to collect what they owed and who finally killed the owner’s son, they looked for ways to kill Jesus.

These were intellectually rigorous stories that made the people who heard them think, and ultimately to act, though not always in positive ways. Stories don’t come with guarantees.

They don’t even come with guarantees that the audience will understand. More than once Jesus took His disciples aside to explain the meaning of His stories. Certainly the words were understandable, the images were familiar, but the disciples were wrestling with the “so what” of the story. What does it mean, they asked Jesus. They weren’t asking, what does it mean when you say a sower went out to sow. They got that. They got that seed wouldn’t grow if the birds came and ate it or if it fell on rocky ground or if thorns choked out the roots. What they wrestled with was the significance of what they heard.

In all this talk of “intellectual rigor,” I’m hearing very little about adding significance to our fiction. It seems to me, writers today want to tell farmers stories about computers, and when they aren’t interested, these writers are chastising them for not being intellectually rigorous.

If they want to reach farmers, these writers ought to be writing stories about which farmers care and which hold significance for farmers rather than criticizing them for the weakness of their intellectual rigor.

Enduring Bad Theology


Last week author friend Mike Duran posed this question in a blog post: Can good fiction contain bad theology?

In order to answer, the critical correlative questions would seem to be, what is theology and what is good fiction?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, theology is “the study of the nature of God and religious belief.” According to a reviewer Mike quoted in his post, a good story would fit into this statement about art: “Art exists to reveal beauty and truth.” The quote continued by saying that no piece of art could bear the whole weight of the task, meaning that neither all beauty nor all truth will be revealed in one sculpture, one painting, one story.

Does that, then, mean anti-truth is permissible since all truth can’t possibly fit into one story? As I see this issue, not telling the whole truth is not synonymous with “bad theology.”

For example, the truth about God is that He is the Creator of the heavens and the earth. Oh, but that’s not the whole truth about God. He is much, much, much, much, ad infinitum more. So, is the line I wrote, bad theology?

No. Actually it is good theology. It is truthful.

What defines bad theology, then, is that which is not true about God, His Word, or His work (untruthful “religious belief,” according to the OED).

Must every story contain theology? Every story isn’t about God. Many are about Mankind with no mention of God. And yet, there is theology in those as well.

Since reading Mike’s post, I’ve thought about a number of stories that weren’t Christian–Brave New World, 1984, Animal Farm, Grapes of Wrath, The Pearl, Lord of the Flies, Fathers and Sons, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, even Gone with the Wind.

Where was God in these stories? In most, He simply wasn’t a factor. Rather, the books revealed something about Mankind, something truthful–aligned with Scripture.

That’s the crux of the issue, I believe. The test for truth needs to be the Bible, the authoritative Word of God.

Oddly enough, Mike asked in his post if the life of David, Jonah, Rahab, Judas, Samson, Peter fully represent sound theology. It seems to me his idea was, No they don’t. On the contrary, I think they absolutely do represent sound theology because in God is kindness and severity, justice and mercy–in other words, not only His response to obedience but also His response to disobedience.

In addition, Man contains God’s image and the sin nature inherited from Adam, a spirit that is willing and flesh that is weak. In short, good theology shows what the Bible shows. It’s truth on the deepest level.

Bad theology, unfortunately, colors our society. Western culture says with increased frequency that Mankind is good, that truth is relative, that God is non-existent, that supernatural power is within each person–all things that contradict the Bible.

Would a story contain bad theology if it showed a character with such beliefs? On the contrary, the bad theology of characters shows what the Bible says is true about people.

In addition, the book needs to be considered as a whole, not broken down into it’s gnat-like elements. For example, someone might say, Good theology is to identify gossip as sin. If a character in a book gossips and doesn’t suffer consequences for that sin, then this book contains bad theology.

Really?

The Apostle Paul got so mad about John Mark leaving in the middle of the first missionary journey that he refused to take him along on the second. He and Barnabas got into an argument over the matter and in fact went their separate ways because of their disagreement. Yet the Bible is completely silent about consequences of Paul and Barnabas’s tiff.

Was God condoning their fight because He didn’t show us the consequences? Looking at Scripture as a whole it’s clear that God wasn’t giving silent permission for Christians to bicker.

Sometimes in fiction what a book is doing is unrelated to particular sins, yet those sins are true to the character and consistent with good theology–the part about the fall of Man. Just like Scripture’s silence about the consequences of Paul and Barnabas’s disagreement, leaving a matter unaddressed in fiction isn’t the same condoning the sin. Nor is it the same as inserting error.

Must readers endure bad theology?

I think the mindset of contemporary western Man is far from a Christian worldview, so bad theology fills most of the stories we see, hear, and read.

Should Christians, then, engage in writing stories with bad theology? Why would we do that? What is to set us apart from the rest of culture if we tell stories that lie about God?

The best thing for readers, of course, is to always test the theology of what’s thrown at us. Is this consistent with what Scripture tells us about the world, about Mankind, about God? Those are the critical questions.

Bad theology is not Jonah disobeying God. Bad theology would be Jonah disobeying God and achieving peace and happiness as a result.

Do we stay away from such books? Wave DO NOT READ warning signs over them? If we do so over books written by Christians, then we must do so over every other book or movie or TV show that clashes with Truth.

The problem isn’t reading or viewing something with bad theology. It’s doing so and not recognizing it. When we read a book that espouses something contrary to Scripture and don’t recognize it as a lie, then we are susceptible to that lie.

Published in: on July 2, 2012 at 6:59 pm  Comments (1)  
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What Postmodernism Gets Right


The Audacious Ride for Visions, painting by Leda Luss Luyken

When I first started examining postmodernism to know how precisely that way of looking at the world differed from what I was used to, my pastor at the time, Dale Burke, said that postmodernism is no more dangerous than modernism — neither one is a Biblical worldview but neither one is all wrong either.

He was right. And yet it seems so much easier to camp on the ways that postmodernism contradicts what I believe rather than affirming the things about this way of thinking that are helpful.

First, postmodernism is essentially a way of looking at the world that stands against the ideals of modernism — things like socially progressive trends; affirming the power of the human being to create, improve, and reshape the environment; and replacing the old with the new to facilitate the advance of science and technology.

One thing that seems true of postmodernism is that science and materialism is no longer the end of all knowledge. Instead, there’s a new awareness that there is spiritual knowledge — influences that can’t be scientifically defined or measured and a world beyond the material that can’t be quantified.

This is a good thing. In some ways it’s a replication of the difference between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the latter being the Jewish sect that didn’t believe in supernatural intervention in the world such as angels or visions or presumably, the Holy Spirit, and certainly not the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

It was the Pharisees that could say when Paul was arrested, Wait a minute; maybe he has seen an angel.

The point is, the refusal to see beyond the material world is a huge barrier to anyone coming to Christ. How do you explain God’s existence to someone who begins the discussion believing that the only viable proofs are material in nature? It’s like saying, Show me love.

Postmodernism reintroduces the spiritual into the conversation. Granted, another part of postmodernism wants to accept all and any spiritual experience as equally valid and true, so it’s still far from a Biblical position, but nevertheless, it seems to me more Pharisees were likely to believe Paul’s conversion on the Damascus road than Sadducees who thought communication with a supernatural being an impossibility.

Something else I think postmodernism has right is validating human experience. Today there’s much more emphasis put on a person’s story, and on story in general. Telling stories as opposed to delineating facts puts the heart back into history. How people feel and how they act as a result is a holistic approach to understanding others.

Of course, postmodernism misses again by thinking that no one can understand another person’s experiences because of the limitations of language and that all experiences, even those that clash, are equally true because they are true for each person in question.

The important thing for the Christian, I believe, is to pay attention to what our culture says and to measure it by the standard of God’s word. How others in society perceive the world matters a great deal.

In many respects, someone like Rob Bell (Love Wins) or Paul Young (The Shack) is doing nothing more than mirroring the thinking of the age. Christians can pooh-pooh those ideas and scorn those books, but we had better understand why so many people listened. Two of those reasons are things postmodernism gets right — stories touch our hearts and the spiritual is real.

Those things are consistent with a Biblical worldview, and it would be wise for us to admonish and teach and evangelize by capitalizing on exactly those things.

Published in: on April 19, 2012 at 6:28 pm  Comments (3)  
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Preachy Fiction


Two of the Mikes whose blogs I follow, Mike Duran and Mike Dellosso (soon to be known as Michael King — you’ll have to ask him about that) posted this week on the subject themes in fiction. As it happened, they took opposite positions on the subject.

What caught my attention most, however, was Tony’s comment to Mike Dellosso’s article. In part he said

If you can entertain me first, I won’t mind a message in there. It’s why shows like Glee are so successful despite their obvious indoctrination-style message.

Ah, yes, Glee, a show with an “obvious indoctrination-style message.” I would mention Harry’s Law as just such a show as well. Perhaps there are others I’ve never watched. These two, I know about. In both cases I watched the first season and indeed found them entertaining, but at some point all the preachiness, much of it about things with which I disagree, drove me away.

I’ll give you a snippet of a recent Harry’s Law — and I didn’t watch this entire show, so don’t have all the details.

First a little background. Harry is a lawyer, a 50-something woman who got fed up with the way law had turned into a game, but ended up opening a store-front office in the heart of the inner city and started representing those who normally couldn’t afford representation that would give them a fair shake. Well, a season later, she’s been so successful, she’s taken on partners and is now in charge of her own firm.

In the show in question, someone came to her because they wanted to sue the local zoo on behalf of a gorilla. The animal was being unfairly treated, the claimant said, its rights trampled. The show then went into the courtroom where all kinds of evidence was brought up — how intelligent the animal was, how social it was, how its present conditions deprived it of what it needed.

Ultimately the judge had to rule on the question of whether or not the gorilla was considered property. There was even comparison with how the gorilla was being treated and the treatment of African Americans during the era of slavery.

Yes, meat-eating came up and what a ruling in favor of the gorilla would mean for pets. In the end, Harry lost the case, but the show closed with a touching scene where Harry went to the cage to tell the gorilla she would keep fighting for it to get moved or to stay, I forget which was at issue.

Simply put, Harry’s Law is an issues show. Glee is too, or at least it had become one at the point when I stopped watching it.

Is blog commenter Tony right that these kinds of shows stay on the air because they are so well done, the preachiness of them doesn’t spoil them?

But more to the point, why do secular TV shows get to be preachy but Christian fiction doesn’t? Obviously I’m not talking about “get to” in the sense of “permission.” Rather, when these things are reviewed, do the writers of Harry’s Law and Glee get taken to task for their preachiness in the same way that authors of Christian fiction do?

Here’s one segment of a review covering the episode I referred to:

While I recognize the prerogative of the writers of this show to turn everything into a social issue, this show cannot and should not be expected to hold its own on this premises alone.

This series is more than capable of building deep and convincing character development while still achieving its social issues agenda in the courtroom.

Apparently this reviewer agrees with Tony.

Then are Christians laboring under a double standard in fiction — people can write about what they believe as long as it isn’t Christianity?

As a reminder, I’m not in favor of in-your-face themes. That’s very different from fiction that says nothing, however. Themes that are well crafted and need some tugging and teasing to bring them out are absolutely the best. Those are embedded into the story and are part of it’s warp and woof. The characters’ lives, choices, and development direct the reader toward the story’s meaning. The Ah-ha moment is not summed up in dialogue or even in internal monologue.

Little Red Riding Hood does not turn to the Hunter and say, Thank you for saving me from the Big Bad Wolf. I understand that I was wrong to talk to a stranger. From now on I will be sure to obey.

Weeping over the death of her grandmother would be far more effective.

But either way, the message is there. Christian writers seem to be on an island thinking that our stories are not supposed to mean something.

Published in: on March 22, 2012 at 6:43 pm  Comments (27)  
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Fiction Matters


Fiction matters? I mean, really? A glance at the news headlines say that raising the US debt limit matters, that Norway’s reaction to the mass killings in their country matters, that Syrian tank attacks on one of their own cities matter, that Turkey’s impending appointment of military chiefs matters, and on the list goes.

But fiction? It matters, the headlines say, in the sense that a certain movie based on a popular literary series about a boy wizard has already earned over a billion dollars worldwide.

Does it matter, though, in any kind of substantive sense — beyond the few hours of pleasure it yields to those who consume it and the dollars it brings those who produce it?

I think fiction has always mattered — from the earliest oral renderings to the elaborate visual productions we enjoy today.

Stories preserve culture. The people of Israel were given the Passover as a rite to repeat year after year so their children would ask about the exodus and the adults would once again tell the story of God’s deliverance. Of course that’s not an example of fiction, but made up stories reflect the culture and its values. Hence one generation uses stories to pass to the next what is important for them to know and believe.

Stories also introduce ideas. For good or for ill, one way people learn new things is through stories. Sometimes we learn about new places and people; sometimes we learn about new ways to sin, things we wouldn’t have thought of before.

Through stories our perspectives change. One thing that defeats prejudice, for example, is reading a story about a Civil War era slave who loves his family and God and who sacrifices his own well-being for others.

In this vein, stories impart values — ones that are consistent with the norm or that challenge common thinking.

Because of the uniqueness of stories, they are perhaps more powerful than any other form of communication — they show rather than merely telling.

Any number of preachers could say, love your neighbor. But Jesus told a story showing a man risking his own well-being for and giving his own provisions to someone who most likely hated him. Those who first heard the story, and all of us since, have a clear picture to use as a touchstone for what it means to love our neighbor.

Where the Red Fern Grows, The Yearling, Old Yeller — stories like these give middle grade readers examples of young people making hard choices and growing up through their tough circumstances.

The Lord of the Rings shows readers the importance of standing for good against evil. Pride and Prejudice shows the need to defeat both of the title vices. The Count of Monte Cristo shows characters grappling with justice, hope, vengeance, mercy, and forgiveness.

Stories have the power to ennoble us. They can put a mirror in front of our faces and show us as others see us. They can encourage us in the way we’re going or show us an alternate path.

Stories matter — to the culture and also to each reader. Now it’s up to us to read well.

Published in: on August 1, 2011 at 6:59 pm  Comments (3)  
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If More Isn’t Better, What Is?


Last time I made a case for writers slowing down their writing rather than flooding the market with less-than-best novels. With the change of status of the e-book and the ease, as well as the lower cost, of publishing that format, authors may be tempted to increase how fast they put out books rather than to slow down. I think that would be a mistake.

Writers should continue to improve. How can they when they barely have time to get a story down and turned in on deadline, even as they put in hours promoting the previous book?

But how, exactly, can a writer improve?

Last time I mentioned that characters can improve with time. As a writer gets to know the characters, they become like real people and therefore behave on paper in realistic ways. Gone will be the lines of dialogue the author forces on them because readers need to know certain things. Instead conversation, thoughts, and actions will fit naturally because this particular character would say, think, and do these particular things.

But it’s a stretch to make characters unique. No two people are alike, and an author needs to work hard to make no two characters alike, in what they do, how they think, how they sound. In addition, no character should fit a mold. Just like an author should avoid cliched expressions, she must avoid cliched characters.

Along those lines, a writer aiming for better, not just more, should avoid cliched answers to the difficulties she puts her characters in. Finding an uncommon way of escape is a challenge on several levels. One is to find something that hasn’t been done to death already. The other is to foreshadow it properly so that the problem isn’t solved by some force or mechanism that appears conveniently at just the right moment when nobody (especially the reader) expected it or looked for it.

Besides believable plot points that are properly foreshadowed, the better plots are not convoluted. Once I had an editor call a synopsis I wrote “convoluted.” He was right. I hadn’t written the book yet and put the synopsis together based on ideas I had for the story. I knew where I wanted to go but not what all I wanted to happen on the way. I put in all the interesting things I considered. It was too much and of course as I began to develop the story, it was obvious to me which ideas didn’t fit.

Unfortunately, it seems like some books retain all the interesting ideas even if they don’t fit. Plots should not be hard to follow. They can have interesting twists, certainly, but the bottom line should be, the protagonist has an objective and a plan of action. So does the antagonist, and the two are on a collision course.

Most importantly, however, books should say something. Unless they are modeled on fables in which a stated moral is part of the story, the something a book says should be woven into the fabric through symbolism, character growth, plot developments, and resolution.

Such weaving takes time and is often a result of extensive revision.

I could go on and discuss character motivation and language and imagery and subplots and a host of other things that better stories have, but I think it’s probably time I put this particular rant back into its cage for a while. Let me end with a simple answer to the title question: If more isn’t better, what is? Creativity — and that takes time.

Refreshing Fiction Continued


As most writers know, there are no “new” plots. That doesn’t mean there are no new stories, however. An oft-done plot can still be made into a fresh and entertaining story.

Take romance for example. Everyone knows that the traditional plot form of a romance is boy meets girl and they fall in love, but Things happen to keep them apart. In the end, however, they conquer or their love conquers and they get together.

No real surprise in a romance. Then how does a writer make a romance seem fresh? The easy way is to create seemingly insurmountable barriers—cultural or religious mores that keep the couple apart, personality quirks, misunderstandings, irreconcilable differences (until they are reconciled – 😉 ).

Perhaps one character is a faery and the other a human, in a wheelchair. Those are obstacles! Who would even see the romance coming? Which is precisely why R. J. Anderson surprised and delighted readers with Faery Rebel: Spell Hunter.

But what if the couple is already married—a union of convenience or position—and they barely tolerate each other? What if, in fact, the wife holds her husband in contempt because she admires a mysterious someone else who does gallant, selfless deeds to help others?

That set-up describes The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, one of my favorite novels. I suspect one reason I love it so much is because of the surprise I experienced the first time I read it.

But now those two have been done, so how can a romance writer find a new something? Sometimes the newness isn’t in the plot but in the characters. An interesting character, quirky, engaged to someone else, perhaps single longer than most, with a family who values family and marriage above all else.

Add in humor (which comes from the quirky characters) and you have the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a surprising smash hit.

Or how about a widower not looking to remarry, with a little boy who longs for a mother, so much so that he makes a call to an all-night talk show and pours out his heart. Interested women start to write. MANY interested women. Now we have distance, reticence, an engagement, the many others, all standing in the way of true love. And that’s Sleepless in Seattle.

Another tack is to merge elements of “already been done” stories. Take Beauty and the Beast, for example, and merge that with Sleeping Beauty and you have Shrek. Of course, the brilliant writers who created all three Shrek movies did much more than staple two threads together, but the point for this discussion is that they worked from familiar storylines. By starting with two that seemed unlikely to fit together, they made a movie (three actually) that seemed familiar yet wholly new.

Fresh stories can also come from different settings. What would a romance set in Louisiana as the state battled the worst oil spill in history look like?

What would a romance between a 9/11 widow and a firefighter ten years after the Twin Towers attack look like?

New places, odd places, uncomfortable places can be fuel for fresh fiction just as much as plot twists or off-beat characters. The important thing, I think, is to imagine beyond the list of “first responders”—the ideas that present themselves when we writers first start contemplating a story.

Published in: on June 3, 2010 at 11:02 am  Comments Off on Refreshing Fiction Continued  
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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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