A Story: Surviving On Your Own


One day a great storm devastated an isolated village. Only one man and his small family survived. They decided to look for food and water in a nearby forest that, strangely, seemed untouched by the storm.

After days of hunting and gathering, they came upon a quaint, tidy cabin made of logs.

“What a wonder,” the man’s wife said. “A place where we can live away from the wild animals and the night frost.”

“It’s a little far from water, though,” the man said. “We’ll stay here for a few days while I scout out a better location where we can build our own house.”

A few days passed as the little family busied themselves with the necessities of survival. Early the first of the week, the man set out to scout for a place near a stream or river. Surprisingly, he returned in a matter of moments.

“Why did you come back so soon? Did you forget something?” his wife asked. “Are you hurt? Are we in danger?”

“Not at all,” the man replied. “I found a source of water, so there’s no need to look for a better place.”

“A stream we overlooked?”

“No. A well. It’s fairly new, as if someone dug it recently.”

“What good fortune! Unless they are planning to come back. Do you think someone owns this land? Maybe we should try to find out who built the cabin and dug the well. We could offer to rent from him. Maybe someday buy.”

“That would be a good plan,” her husband answered. “But I don’t think anyone actually does own the land, the cabin, or the well. We should just enjoy what nature has provided.”

When winter came, the man could no longer hunt as he had before, and his wife and children had no berries or nuts or roots to gather. The food that they had dried for the cold months became scarce.

After a particularly fierce storm, the man made his way to the well. There, off to one side, dug into the side of a small knoll, he discovered a cave. Carefully he peered inside. Hanging from meat hooks just inside the entrance were several boar carcasses. The cave was apparently a smoke house that they simply had overlooked.

Gratefully he took down the nearest slab of meat and returned to the cabin.

A day or two later he found a barn with a milk cow inside. Still another day he came upon a small silo filled with grain.

All winter his small family lived on the meat, milk, and grain from these outbuildings. Surprisingly, when they were low on meat, another wild boar appeared in the smoke house, along with a bin of roots and another of spices. They had all they wanted to live by.

One day as spring approached, the man’s oldest asked, “Daddy, where does the food come from?”

The man puffed out his chest and smiled. “I find it for you, my son.”

“But when we first came to the cabin, I didn’t see a smoke house or a barn or a well. No silo either.”

“I guess we didn’t look closely,” his mother said.

“Or perhaps we didn’t know the area well enough to know where to look or what to look for,” the man added. “Or maybe the things just happened. The storm might have caused them to form.”

“And the animals?” the boy asked.

“They may have wandered in to get out of the cold,” his mother said.

“I’m glad the cow wandered into the barn and not the smoke house,” the boy said. “I like her milk.”

Up on a hill overlooking his forest strode the king of the land with several of his attendants.

“How long do you want us to provide meat for the little family, Sire,” one of the servants asked.

“As long as they need it,” his royal majesty said. “They’re bound to realize soon that they have sheltered on my land, that I’ve supplied them with what they need. If not, I’ll send one of you to tell them.”

“I’ll go,” the prince said. “Surely they’ll recognize the royal robe and the crown. I’ll tell then you’ve been watching over them since they entered the forest, and that they can stay as long as they would like. I’m sure they’ll be happy to learn they are not alone, that you are generous and kind and that they have nothing to worry about.”

But the little family wasn’t glad. They didn’t know this king, they said, and they weren’t about to take the word of a so-called prince, that somebody else owned this land. Hadn’t they lived there now for six months? By right the place was theirs. They weren’t going to pay tribute or follow some imaginary king’s rules. Why, he’d probably say the man could only hunt certain animals and had to give away a portion of the milk.

When the prince turned his back, the man picked up the nearby pitchfork, and made his plan.

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Published in: on September 23, 2019 at 5:02 pm  Comments (14)  
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Affecting Culture Through Stories


HollywoodStreetPreachingHow important are stories? Next to actual Bible study, I suggest they are the most powerful teaching tools available.

Way back when—more than twenty years ago—I read a book by Gary Smalley (which, it turns out, was re-released several years ago) entitled The Language of Love. In that book, Smalley suggested a communication technique that would especially help women reach men, not with abstract information but at the heart level. The technique, in essence is, to tell a story.

After reading that book, I began to see ways in which our culture has been and is being shaped by the stories we embrace. Changes in attitudes toward a particular moral idea often follow the gradual changes in depicting the topic in the media. (The typical pattern is first to make a joke about the subject until joking about it is normative; then joking changes to acceptance and open discussion; acknowledgment, especially of the rights an individual has in connection to the subject then morphs to an attitude of “everyone does it” or “they’re just like us.” This pattern is evident in things such as the attitudes toward pornography and homosexuality).

I was reminded of this by two unrelated sources. One, a letter from a US-based ministry, quoted statistics published in the AARP magazine (that’s for seniors), including questions like, “Do you believe in God, in heaven, in hell?” The startling thing for me was this report:

There was a sizeable number of individuals who believed in a second time around. 23% believed in reincarnation (50 years ago the % would have been 1.)

Now for the second source. In a blog post including information from an interview about the non-fiction book, Rethinking Worldview author Mark Bertrand said this:

After all, the average Christian has been much more profoundly influenced by non-Christian art and entertainment than he has by non-Christian evangelism and apologetics.

That line made total sense as I thought about the 22% of our population who have converted to belief in reincarnation, without people standing on the street corners handing out tracts about it. Or holding reincarnation tent meetings.

Mind you, I am not against these kinds of evangelism tools in the hands of Christians. The point is, persuasion often comes in more subtle ways—through pop culture, through art, through literature.

I’ve ranted before about the “innocent” little Disney movie that so many Christians embraced, The Lion King, in which many New Age teachings were front and center. Shortly thereafter (at least here in SoCal), makeshift shrines began to appear on the street when someone died, followed with claims that “I know my deceased ____ is watching over me/helping me/looking down on me.” I’ve heard such anti-biblical comments from people who claim to be Christians. And maybe are.

The point is, the culture, and story in particular, has had a greater influence on forming belief about death and the afterlife than has the Bible and preaching about the subject. Well, to be fair, maybe not a greater influence. After all, the reincarnation number is still not the majority.

Sadly, however, only 29% believed they would go to Heaven because of a belief in Jesus Christ, though 88% said they believed THEY would go to heaven. Clearly, our culture is an eclectic hodge-podge of false teaching, with truth mixed in.

And how can we sort through the sludge to show the gospel? Next to Bible study and good expository Bible teaching in church, I tend to think stories can be the most effective tools.

With some minor revision, this post first appeared here in September 2007.

God’s Plan And The World


Banquet_tableFor God so loved the world, John 3:16 says. And yet there are people who think Christians are some kind of exclusive club looking who we can keep out, not who is invited in.

Jesus told a story to illustrate how His plan of redemption and reconciliation works.

A rich ruler decided to put on a banquet. He sent out invitations, but one after the other the people he wanted at his feast sent their regrets: A new responsibility needed attention. Another important relationship had to take priority. Too busy to squeeze in the time.

Fine, the ruler said to his servants. They don’t want to come, then they don’t get to come. Invite people from all walks of life, no matter what their status, what their occupation, even the beggars.

When everyone arrived, there was still room for more people, so the rich man sent out his servants again, this time to the places where criminals were apt to hang out, and told them to compel the people to come.

At last the banquet got underway, but one person wasn’t dressed appropriately. Why aren’t you wearing banqueting attire? the host asked. The guest had no answer, so he was put out.

The banquet is a metaphor for the “marriage supper of the Lamb,” the great celebration God has prepare for His people. But “His people” aren’t necessarily who you’d expect. They aren’t an exclusive set handpicked for their charm, wit, intelligence, skill, power, prestige, or money. They are simply those who accepted the invitation. In contrast, those who are too self-important, too determined to go their own way, won’t accept the invitation. And some might accept but won’t come prepared.

This story, this word picture (actually two versions—one in Matt. 22 and the other in Luke 14—which I’ve compressed into one), makes several things clear. First, those who ended up at the rich man’s table, enjoying the feast, did nothing to earn their invitation.

Most of them were going their own way, expecting to do something different, be somewhere else, and suddenly the invitation comes—there’s a banquet, and you’re invited.

To accept such an invitation, it seems to me a person would have to realize what an honor, what a privilege had come their way. If they thought, No big deal; I can throw my own banquet if I want to—then chances are, they wouldn’t put a great deal of priority in attending. If they had plenty of food and weren’t particularly hungry, they could easily have thought ill of the invitation—what a bother, in the middle of the work day? he can’t expect me to drop everything and come just because he’s throwing a party.

But for the people who were out of work, who begged just to buy a scrap of food, who had never sat at a banqueting table in their lives, this invitation had to be the best news they’d ever heard.

Of course, there may have been some who didn’t think the invitation was real. What, you think you’d be invited up to the mansion for a party? You’re deluded. Or someone is scamming you. You’ll show up and somebody will jump out from the bushes and shout, April Fool, and you’re it. I mean, no one, no one in their right mind, invites a bunch of riffraff to share their table.

So the people who benefit from this invitation don’t earn it, but they must trust that the invitation is true.

The_Marriage_Feast_by_MillaisThe part of the story that has long given me trouble is the part about the guy getting put out for not wearing the proper clothes. I’d think none of those beggars or poor or the ones coming in from the highways and the byways would have the proper clothes either. I can only conclude, the banquet attire was something the host provided for his guests, so the man who was dressed inappropriately had no excuse. Which his silence would seem to corroborate.

So there’s God’s plan for the world. He invites, and we either accept or reject. Nothing exclusive about it. In reality, none of us can provide our own banquet. We might think we can, but that’s delusional. Only God can provide what we need. Our role in the matter is to recognize our need and His provision, then trust that He will give what He said He would give. That trust, I believe, is the proper clothing we need. Trying to go to His banquet all dressed up in our own rags of self-righteousness will surely get us barred from the table.

My Story


I'm the one in the front with the "what's going on" expression.

I’m the one in the front with the “what’s going on” expression.

I love hearing how other people have come to faith in Jesus Christ. Though our backgrounds are different and the events in our lives are miles apart, we still have a common experience when it comes to giving our lives over to Jesus as our Lord and Savior.

So it’s exciting to hear other people tell the details that brought them to that place.

My story always feels ordinary and unexciting, but I guess that’s part of the beauty of God’s amazing love. While He can pull out a last-minute rescue such as the one the thief who died next to Jesus experienced, and He can dramatically turn around a Christian-hater like Paul, He can also open His arms to the little children whose parents brought them to receive His blessing.

My story is like the ones those little children might have told years later.

I came to Jesus when I was three—as near as I can tell. I don’t actually remember the moment in time when I turned my life over to God. At least not that first time.

Yes, there were multiple times. I’ve written elsewhere (in “Believe in Jesus” and “My Deceitful Heart“) about my early doubts and the process of coming to realize I had, in fact, entered into a relationship with God despite my sins of action and attitude which continued to plague me. You see, I’d thought the evidence of my relationship with God would be a life of perfect obedience, and I just wasn’t seeing that.

Eventually I came to the point where I realized if I was to get off the roller-coaster of doubt, I had to trust that God meant what He said: if I confessed with my mouth (and I had) and believed in my heart that Jesus was who He said He was (and I did), I was saved.

The issue wasn’t what I had to do because I couldn’t do anything big enough or great enough to earn a right relationship with God. If I was to be saved, it was because of what Christ did for me, and I simply had to put my trust in Him.

Here’s the thing that I think is so cool about my story of coming to Christ—He saved me from myself.

I used to hear testimonies of people who came from hard lives—drugs and promiscuous lifestyles and gang involvement. Now they had a testimony, I thought. God saved them from stuff that was killing them.

Me? Well, I lied to my first grade teacher and didn’t come to the dinner table right away when my mother called.

See? As I was measuring stories, mine wasn’t so great. It was easy for me to believe in Jesus because I didn’t have all the garbage others had to wade through.

But, oh, how wrong that perspective is. I had my own pride and self-righteousness and judgmental attitudes from which God had to save me.

Which is harder, to save someone who is a drunk or a prostitute, or someone who thinks she might actually be good enough she doesn’t have to have the “sinner” label attached to her?

Well, as it turns out, neither is easier. Both require the exact same thing—the blood of Jesus Christ shed for the forgiveness of sin. Not one kind of sin is more or less easy to forgive than another. Both are forgiven because of His work at the cross, period. I don’t bring a thing to the table and neither does the person who comes from a lifestyle mired in hard living.

My pride and self-righteousness was as great a barrier to reconciliation with God as drug addiction or having an abortion was for other people. Sin, in any and all its shapes, is what blocks our path to God, and sin is built into our DNA.

It’s even built into the DNA of “the good kid.” So my story is really the same as every other Christian’s—God rescued me when I couldn’t rescue myself. He pulled me up from the miry clay because I couldn’t pull myself up.

In the end, my story is really God’s story. He’s the hero, the rest of us, me included, are proof of His love, His power, His forgiveness, grace, and unrelenting faithfulness.

Theology Versus Morality, Part 3


Shepherdandsheep_1298569I ended Part 2, Theology Versus Morality by suggesting that there was perhaps more than one reason some readers want stories that show a “complete conversion”–one in which the protagonist apparently stops sinning.

The problem, of course, is that the story generally ends when the character conquers whatever problem he’s been plagued by, often by making a commitment to Christ. The implication is that ALL is solved and the character will never face the problem again. I suggested some read or write these stories because they put morality ahead of theology. Essentially they’re saying a moral life is the measure of a person’s relationship with God. It’s the same argument Job’s friends made.

But in the stories I’m talking about, the reward God gives is victory over sin.

And the truth is, God does give victory over sin. However, a new believer isn’t always free from addiction at the moment of conversion. Some people struggle. In fact, my guess is that more people identify with Paul’s statements in Romans 7 about the war between what he wants and what he does, than identify with what he said in Romans 6:

our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. (vv 6-7)

Freed from sin, Paul says, but still struggling. Our fiction, however, seems to tell only the first part–freed from sin. Almost automatically. Almost magically. And those stories don’t ring true to readers who struggle with sin in their own lives.

Writers might be penning these stories because they have elevated morality above theology, but they also might write them because they have a philosophy of storytelling that values creating a model for readers to emulate.

A couple years ago I did some study for an article at Spec Faith and discovered that the novel in its earliest forms had two distinct purposes. One was “to invite the readers to mirror the virtues of the story heroes” (“The Point And Purpose Of Reading Fiction”).

I suspect this goal is still the desire of many writers. After all, we as a society copy those we look up to. That’s how fads and fashions catch on. That’s why ad companies use slogans like “Be like Mike,” a popular phrase back in the day when Michael Jordan was at the top of his game.

The key for Christian writers, I believe, is to show a character struggling, wrestling, working to turn away from evil and do good. After all, the Bible says a lot about morality. It would be one sided to pretend that God only cares about what we believe concerning Him, not what we do as a result of our belief.

But we must see morality as an outgrowth of our belief, not a means to gain right standing with God. And the depiction of morality in fiction must not confuse the two.

Some writers, however, believe that, rather than giving a model for readers to emulate, fiction should be a means to understand the world–natural and supernatural. To accomplish this, the writer must accurately and truthful reflect the world, warts and all.

This last approach creates stories that are in line with ones you can find in the book of Judges, involving such things as gang rape and murder, idolatry, betrayal, thievery, abuse, war. The idea is to discover and understand, “to expose life and society for what it is” (“The Point And Purpose Of Reading Fiction”).

These stories, then, subjugate theology to morality, but not for the sake of establishing right morality per se. Rather, a reflection of society, especially an unrestricted look at the underbelly, which exposes or critiques, is the goal.

Here are the two views, both holding theology at bay:

If we understand reading to be a mechanism by which we learn how to be or as a means for personal growth, then we probably want books that call us to godliness or at least to ethical behavior.

If on the other hand, we see reading as a reflection and critique of society, then we want stories that push our awareness of the world, including the seamy side of society. (“The Point And Purpose Of Reading Fiction”)

What I wonder is why those who want to “push our awareness of the world” don’t see as paramount the need to push our awareness of the spiritual side of the world. And by this, I’m not suggesting we need more stories about demons or angels in the vein of Frank Peretti. Rather, there seems to be a great desire to show cursing construction workers and women who sleep around, and not so much a desire to show a loving God who will tend His people like a shepherd, who will carry us with His arm, or hold us close to His chest, or gently lead us.

This is the picture God gives of Himself in Isaiah 40:11. Do we fiction writers think it’s unimportant for the world to understand God as He has shown Himself? Or do we give verbal assent to it but doubt in our hearts that He really shows Himself as He described?

That, I think, might be the key question Christian writers should ask of ourselves. Maybe that all of us should ask.

(Here are the links to Parts 1 and 2.)

Published in: on February 14, 2014 at 6:42 pm  Comments (4)  
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Story And Culture


Jon_Provost_Lassie_1962I found a new TV channel–well, new to me–Cozi TV. As in, the opposite of gritty and real. Actually, it shows oldies. There have been a couple stations here in the LA area that launched using this same strategy. Cozi shows include The Bionic Woman and Magnum PI. And their late night fare? Lassie and The Lone Ranger and Hop-Along-Cassidy.

I fell asleep during that last one, but I had a chance to watch adorable little Timmy learn the don’t-cry-wolf lesson and the heroic masked man save another helpless victim from unscrupulous villains.

It was a little shocking, actually, to see moral good trotted right out on the screen, front and center, with no apology. Especially after I had recently read a New York Times article By Paul Elie entitled “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?”

What has happened to Western culture, I ask, when 50s TV paraded morality in its stories but in the aughts of the new century, fiction has lost its faith?

This, in short, is how Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time: as something between a dead language and a hangover. Forgive me if I exaggerate. But if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature. (from “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?”)

Granted, there’s a good deal of difference between moral fiction and that showing Christian belief. And maybe the fact that the 50s pushed morality rather than the Person and reason behind moral standards in part explains what happened to Western culture.

Elie asks an intriguing question for one such as I, a Christian who aspires to publish Christian fantasy:

Where has the novel of belief gone?

The obvious answer is that it has gone where belief itself has gone. In America today Christianity is highly visible in public life but marginal or of no consequence in a great many individual lives.

There’s a great divide, according to Elie, between what we say we believe and how we actually live our lives. And I wouldn’t argue.

So is that it? Do we pack up our computers and retire from the stage, tiptoeing past the next equivalent of 50 Shades of Grey? Our society has moved past Christian and is on to something else more adaptable to its post-modern thought.

But wait a minute. What about the Left Behind books that garnered blockbuster sales numbers, or as bad as its theology, The Shack and its rise from the ranks of the self-published to best-seller status? Are these books of no consequence because they didn’t qualify by someone’s standard as literary or timeless?

Or are they, in fact, indicators that pop culture is touching a nerve that the literary world is missing?

In naming a smattering of stories that fit his standard, Elie says

These stories are not “about” belief. But they suggest the ways that instances of belief can seize individual lives.

A worthwhile point, especially in light of a second article, this in today’s Atlanta Daily World. “Why Being Christian is Hot…Again” enumerates various singers, actors, and public figures who have made some kind of profession of faith recently.

Despite all the pastoral turmoil, this year has been a proactive and reputable year for faith. Recently, a lot of heavy hitters have openly come out.

According to Jet Magazine, Bishop T.D. Jakes rise “from the pulpit to pop-culture” is what works. Recently Actress Meagan Good opened up to several Media outlets professing her faith, and controversial rapper Nicki Minaj expressed to “Nightline” that God was her hero.

Even Mega-church Pastor Jamal Bryant jokingly proclaimed Tim Tebow the thirteenth disciple, as the Pro football player stunned the world with statistical signs and wonders.

There was also surprisingly, much ado when Billionaire Media mogul Oprah Winfrey confessed Christ during one of her ‘Lifeclass’ tours in NYC. And after news of Rihanna “living her life for God” the string of events only further proclaim: It’s OK to “come out”. (from “Why Being Christian is Hot…Again” by April Byrd)

Is this the type of cultural influence a Christian novelists wants to have–that which has famous people jumping on a God-bandwagon? Or ought we to write about people whose lives have been seized, not by faith but by Jesus Christ?

Published in: on January 17, 2013 at 6:58 pm  Comments (1)  
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Writers Writing Nothing New


Writing instructors constantly remind novelists that there is no such thing as a new story. All of them have already been told before. And why should we be surprised by that since there is no new thing under the sun.

A wife lured her husband into grabbing for power. Is that Macbeth or Eve with Adam? An innocent man is kidnapped and thrown in jail. Joseph, or The Count of Monte Cristo?

First, stories happened, then they became a tale someone told.

But why do writers keep on writing if none of the stories are new? I think there are several reasons. For one thing, the particulars of every story change.

The man-versus-man conflict has been told millions of times, for example, but in each one, a man is not murdering his brother. Perhaps he’s selling him to traders instead or setting his field on fire. Maybe he’s stealing the heart of his girlfriend or sleeping with his wife.

There are any number of details that can change — particulars about the characters, the location, the time, the events leading up to the culminating act, the motivation behind it, the resolution, and what it all means.

Writers continue telling stories, in addition, because each one of us adds our own touch. The story, in essence, becomes an expression of us — our personality, our outlook on life.

Painters have not stopped painting mountains because some other artist completed a landscape featuring mountains. Photographers haven’t stopped snapping pictures of sunsets because others before them have taken photos of the sun slipping below the horizon. These visual artists know that no one has captured their subject at that moment, in that way, and from that same perspective as the one presently holding a brush or peering through a lens.

So, too, writers bring their unique selves to each twice-told tale.

J. R. R. Tolkien said that writing is an act of sub-creation. Scripture says Man is made in God’s image. It’s not a stretch, then, to believe that the act of sub-creation is something humans do because of who God made us to be.

A fourth reason writers continue putting out stories even though we understand we are not writing a new thing — society needs them. For one thing, language changes, and some people prefer stories told in the vernacular.

In addition, society forgets. We need stories to remind us that there’s still a Big Bad Wolf in the woods, that a scorpion still stings because that’s what scorpions do.

Our stories anchor us to the truth, but they also serve as beacons looking forward. They fuel our imagination and make us look beyond ourselves. They attach us to one another, though we live across the globe or the galaxy or in a different era or world. They show us our commonalities even as they inform us of our uniquenesses.

Sure, no story is new, but none of them has ever been told in exactly the same way before. So writers keep writing, and readers keep reading.

Published in: on August 18, 2011 at 5:42 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Art of Storytelling, Part 6


Style, as I see it, is an underrated component of artful storytelling, and I hope to learn much, much more about it, but the key element, of course, is the story. Once upon a time, I equated story with plot, but I now understand that character is just as central, though some argue it owns the prominent place.

Some might think there is little left to say about plot and/or characters. I might have thought this myself, except I read another article in that recent Writer’s Digest magazine that opened my eyes to More. I’m referring to “Your Novel Blueprint,” an excerpt of the book From First Draft to Finished Novel by Karen Wiesner.

The thing that grabbed my attention the most was the interplay between plot and characters that Wiesner clarifies. Here’s one example from the section entitled “Evolving Goals and Motivation”:

Goals are what the character wants, needs or desires above all else. Motivation is what gives him drive and purpose to achieve those goals. Goals must be urgent enough for the character to go through hardship and self-sacrifice.

Multiple goals collide and impact the characters, forcing tough choices. Focused on the goal, the character is pushed toward it by believable, emotional and compelling motivations that won’t let him quit. Because he cares deeply about the outcome, his anxiety is doubled. The intensity of his anxiety pressures him to make choices and changes, thereby creating worry and awe in the reader.

I love this section, but the next is just as good – “Plot Conflicts (External)”:

External plot conflict is the tangible central or outer problem standing squarely in the character’s way. It must be faced and solved. The character wants to restore the stability that was taken from him by the external conflict, and this produces his desire to act. However a character’s internal conflicts will create an agonizing tug of war with the plot conflicts. He has to make tough choices that come down to whether or not he should face, act on, and solve the problem.

That’s probably enough to show how Wiesner interweaves plot and character, but it brings up one of the components of story I think is necessary—well, two actually. The first is that the character must have a want, need, or desire. More than one actually, and these can not be secret. The reader must understand from the outset what it is the character is after.

The second is that the story is really all about the character working to achieve the goals, even as the goals change by growing “in depth, intensity, and scope.” Of course, to achieve these goals, the character must overcome the problems standing squarely in the way.

Of late I’ve read a number of novels that don’t demand my attention until a third to a half way through. I’ve come to realize that I don’t have a compelling reason to keep reading because I don’t see the character taking action to achieve some deeply felt goal. I don’t have a rooting interest in continuing to read.

So now I have a new goal for my own writing, a deeply felt one, I might add. 😉

Published in: on January 14, 2009 at 1:00 pm  Comments (4)  
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The Chief Means of Marketing – Part 5


What makes a novel interesting? What makes a blog post interesting? (And don’t forget, interesting is one of the necessary ingredients if what we produce is going to be buzz worthy).

I don’t think the answers to those two questions are necessarily the same. Fiction, I’m convinced, is interesting primarily if the story is interesting. Perhaps you’ve read here more than once Story trumps all.

But even saying that, there may not be agreement about what makes a story interesting. Some will say it’s the characters. Others will say it’s the plot. Still others will say it’s the way the story is told—the language the author uses. A smaller minority might say stories are interesting if they take the reader to a new place or show them something new about the world, life, history.

The main thing that each of these seem to have in common is the new factor. Yet writing instructors will say time and again, there are no new stories. I’ve read on blogs and in instruction books that there are ten basic plots. When I was in school, we learned there were five basic themes.

Off hand, one might think science fiction or fantasy has the easiest road, for surely those of us writing in the speculative genres have the newest, oddest, strangest stuff with which to construct stories.

But therein lies a danger. New for the sake of new isn’t interesting either. And new that is so odd it doesn’t seem to connect to reality isn’t interesting. In other words, readers want something new but familiar, and something different because the story requires the difference.

In addition, I’m more and more convinced that readers will become attached to a story primarily if they become attached to a character. What, then, makes a character interesting?

Again, if you brought in a hundred fiction writers, you might have a hundred different answers, but here are some broad brush strokes that I believe are needed to make a character interesting.

1) He or she must want something. And the story must be about them going after what they want. Without that central something that the character is trying to achieve, find, win, readers have no reason to be in the protagonist’s corner, hoping and fearing with him or her.

2) He or she must have some admirable qualities. It seems so much emphasis is being put on making characters seem real, some authors are forgetting to make the character likable or admirable. One of the complaints of the movie Prince Caspian was that the screenplay writers changed Peter from a noble character to one with angst. Fortunately other characters were still depicted with strengths, so movie goers didn’t seem to have a problem backing the side of good.

3) He or she must have some weakness. This is the point that has become blown out of proportion, in my opinion, but the answer isn’t to swing the pendulum clear to the other side and depict characters that are unnatural in their goodness. Plots aren’t interesting if they have no conflict, and characters aren’t interesting if they have no internal struggle.

OK, there are other factors, but I’ve gone on too long as it is. Your turn. What makes a character interesting?

Published in: on July 15, 2008 at 2:59 pm  Comments (3)  
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Backtracking to the Second Level of Craft


I want to say something more about the story level of writing, especially since I claim (over and over 😉 ) that story trumps all. I’ve written about the subject before, but in glancing over those posts, I realized I never brought out one of the major requirements for a good story.

Yes, I addressed creating conflict on every page, having an engaging character, making the story unpredictable and surprising, and I alluded to upping the stakes and creating tension and suspense. I even mentioned the importance of setting. So what have I left off?

I can think of at least two things, actually.

One is motivation. Yes, this is usually something mentioned in a discussion about characters, but “story” encompasses characters since characters are the players of the action. They are integral to the story. And motivation is integral to them.

In order for a story to read smoothly, each plot point must make sense, must feel as if it belongs. That means it must be necessary, must move the story forward, and must fit with the other elements. In other words, a plot point can’t spring from nothing. A mild-mannered character, for instance, can’t turn out to be the murderer. Not unless the author has laid the ground work of foreshadowing. Otherwise the character’s actions seem unmotivated or poorly motivated, at best.

Along these lines, an author should eliminate plot points that depend on coincidence. If an author wants to show the hand of God superseding the normal course of events, this is harder to adhere to, but even more important, I believe. Otherwise, “the hand of God” will come across to the reader as nothing more than the manipulation of the author.

Equally important, in my view, is finishing off all the plot and sub-plot points in a satisfactory manner. Notice, this does not mean in a happily-ever-after manner or even an all-i‘s-dotted manner. I think there can be some questions left for the reader to wonder about, but those should not come across like the author just forgot to complete that part of the story.

Having said that, I want to mention that trilogies such as Lord of the Rings (and The Lore of Efrathah), and even some series, like Harry Potter, make no attempt to tie up all the plot points in each book. Rather, they must be tied up by the end of the final book.

It’s harder to do because the books, written over a span of years, can be read in weeks, once the entire series is available. Readers will see the plot holes or inconsistencies or lack of motivation or coincidences. To give attention to the story—characters, plot, setting, and theme—in order to insure that “good story” qualities are in place … well, it seems to me, that takes time, attention to detail, and good editing.

Published in: on March 3, 2008 at 5:02 pm  Comments Off on Backtracking to the Second Level of Craft  
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