2/6/14

Beginning Middle End - Why We Like Stories




A Story About a Ball and it's Owner

Why do we like stories?  Because we don’t know how they end, and we’re dying to find out (literally).  Why does God like stories?  He knows how they end and He’s excited for what he has planned. 

It has been proved that a story works best when it has a specific structure to it.  Three acts, all with a beginning, middle and an end.  All good stories have conflict to them as well and each conflict (small or large) has a beginning, middle, and an end to it.  Similarly, every moment of your life has a structure to it, beginning, middle and end.  What kind of story are you writing everyday? 

Put another way, everyday and even every moment has an attack (onset of conflict), a reaction (flight or a battle) and a resolution: Attack, reaction, resolution; Attack, reaction, resolution; Attack, reaction, resolution.  If this seems boring and repetitious to you, ask yourself, “Are you tired of fighting the battle?  At times we all are.”

A very good friend has lost her spouse and is getting older.  She is tired of the fight.  The weapons are available, but oftentimes, a sense of alone-ness is difficult to navigate.  Even when she has help and companionship, the fear and worry of the coming alone-ness is an unwelcome guest, which steals away present enjoyment.  This interloper ensures that the venture into higher ground and into joy is never a long or a deep journey.

Pastor David Jeremiah says that the Word of God is an offensive weapon, but only when it is used.  As you think about that, you may lament the times you have left yourself unprotected because you didn’t speak out the words and the promises of Almighty God. 

One of the greatest weapons is the phrase, “The joy of the Lord is my (your) strength” (Neh. 8:10). This verse has lead many downtrodden humans to the mountains, and it can lead you if you keep it close and use it as a weapon to ward off the thoughts and feelings that tear away at your peace and erode trust in the source of peace.

As Christians, we all have a claim to a victorious life.  But, we must claim the battle to claim the victory.  How is it possible that so many of us that see the glass half empty?  After seeing a life of miracles (births, healings, the sunrise and the food that grows out of the ground), we still refuse to believe in the swift and sure divine help that leads us out of our troubles or at least strengthens us to survive them.

Why do we like stories?  It’s because we don’t know how they end.  The expectation and the surprise remind us that we are in similarly tight situations, fighting our own dragons and even experiencing similar betrayals from others.  Stories give us practice in the art of patience and courage as we vicariously cheer for the hero, who is us.  We connect with stories that remind us of ours.  Mothers and fathers especially connect with films like “Prisoners,” with Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman, because they can relate to that kind of a battle.  The logline reads: When a daughter is kidnapped, the family takes matters into their own hands.

A good story encourages (IN COURAGE, US).  Your strength will ebb and flow during your life and there are many things that can encourage you, like the “never-say-die” courage of anyone, who refuses to give in to a tendency to worry or to fear.  We are encouraged by one who will not be slowed by a difficult task or an illness or one who smiles and chooses love and faith, rather than choosing to wilt in fear, depression or loneliness.

This kind of courage is worlds away from choosing to hide our fear from others as if everything is ok.  This is not helpful to either party.  The fearful one harbors dangerous fear, anger and mistrust and pays for this myopia by having to go it alone.  Making decisions based on fear and worry never leads to fair and open-minded decision-making.  

Why does God like stories?  Because He does know how they end and he directs the perfect ending.  The ending is so glorious that it will obliterate all of the trials of this world in the flash of an instant that will make us embarrassed that we ever complained. 

Work toward that end.  Take some others with you.

6 comments:

Melissa said...

Hear hear, John! Truth is truth in any language...in any story. Great post.

Stanley D. Williams said...

This is excellent, John. In my workshops and story consulting I'm ALWAYS trying to get people to understand that fictional characters must be designed to react just like real humans do, with values that drive decisions that lead to actions that result in consequences in accordance with Natural Law....that in turn inform and adjust the initial values. And the cycle repeats for the whole live of the character ... or, us. In novel writing the pattern is scene-scenario, or action-response. Another echo of what you've written (in terms of hope, b/c God knows the ending) can be found in Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical letter "On Christian Hope," where he writes, "All serious and upright human conduct is hope in action" (35). We are "encouraged" (thanks for the great definition of the word) because we work toward a hopeful, happy ending, as all passionate, active protagonists (us, included) should. Yes, God knows the ending, but we work toward it in Hope. Mother Benedict (Regina Laudis Abbey founder where Delores Hart now lives), wrote "The secret to [the beginning of the story] is to do something concrete, that opens the possibilities [Act 2's middle]. You don't know what God is doing on the other side [for the subplots in Act 2 or the end in Act 3]. But He's doing something. You have to keep a sense of obligation on the one hand, and trust on the other." (Ignatius biography pages 2-3). This all reminds me too of Ps 139:17: "How precious to me are your designs, O God; how vast the sum of them!" (NAB) God's designs are the plot or subplots of our lives, and there are many, if we trust in him to write Act 3, and as we write the Act 3 of our characters.

Anonymous said...

A COMMENT FROM RICK:

As a Christian screenwriter I appreciated your thoughtful article. I have spent countless hours considering these same two questions or some variation on them. With respect, I would suggest a different answer for why man is drawn to story and movies. This was designed into man so that we would be receives of the gospel. An examination of classical story narrative shows it to be a mirror image of the gospel itself - a reflection of the gospel without its substance.
Consider how the story beats that have to be present in a feature film all represent parts of the gospel narrative:

1) a character with a fatal flaw (sin nature that dooms us)

2) followed by an inciting incident (it is with difficulty that man is saved so something hits his world to upset the balance)

3) he tries to resolve things while hanging onto his flaw but it just makes things worse and worse wearing his resistance down (this reflects man's heart being softened by the work of the Holy Spirit who dogs him)

4) he has a moment of enlightenment wherein he is confronted with his flaw (the pivot is a shadow of repentance, which of course means to turn around. Interestingly, some have called this beat the moment of grace. It exactly reflects man hearing and responding to the gospel)

5) now he moves form the neg side of story's moral polarity to the pos side. This is where friends become foes; foes become friends (which is what happened when I got saved. The people I thought were stupid freaks became my treasures and to my friends I became a lost cause. This moment represents the propitiation being applied to us)

6) a period of grace often follows as the protag is rewarded for beginning to operate on a higher level (this is that wonderful 'new love' experience a new believer experience is his new relationship with Christ)

7) This period doesn't last long and he is tested. The chickens of his old ways sometimes come to roost here and he must contend with the consequences demonstrating at least some change as he does (God wants to show us where we really are in our sanctification just like the audience wants to see if the character is really growing. so He allows us to be tried by the world, flesh and Devil)

8) a death moment of some kind at the end of the penultimate act (This beat has a lot of different forms but the importance is that it reflects the mortification of our flesh through the sanctification process that means hard trials. In gospel language this is dying to self and living to Christ)

9) a final showdown (This can range from the victory of leaving this body of sin to being in glory all the way to vanquishing some sin that once had mastery over us - either way it's a shadow of the ultimate victory we have in Christ demonstrated by our ability to demonstrate His power and thereby bring Him glory)

It fascinates me that what even the most pagan screenwriters have arrived at through trial and error - in order to get their stories to work - ends up to be nothing less than a perfect overlay of the gospel narrative. I like to think of story beats as an empty glove. I can put the beats of a human so-called redemption story in it; or I can put beats that show the hand of God.

This speaks also to why God likes story and I think you touched on it very nicely by showing how it speaks to His sovereignty over all things. God's majesty is put on display in the gospel. And since story points to the gospel, He is glorified by it to His own great pleasure. All doctrine unfolds at the Cross. His power, righteousness, justice, wisdom, mercy - they're all there. My utter sinfulness and helplessness to do anything about it - the Cross proves those too, or there wouldn't need to be a cross. The gospel is the only true substance of story. All of man's stories are cast shadows. The real question, I think, is will we write stories that point to His true majesty, or will we distort the form of the narrative to convey the false gospel of human self-redemption?

Anonymous said...

A COMMENT FROM RICK:

As a Christian screenwriter I appreciated your thoughtful article. I have spent countless hours considering these same two questions or some variation on them. With respect, I would suggest a different answer for why man is drawn to story and movies. This was designed into man so that we would be receives of the gospel. An examination of classical story narrative shows it to be a mirror image of the gospel itself - a reflection of the gospel without its substance.
Consider how the story beats that have to be present in a feature film all represent parts of the gospel narrative:

1) a character with a fatal flaw (sin nature that dooms us)

2) followed by an inciting incident (it is with difficulty that man is saved so something hits his world to upset the balance)

3) he tries to resolve things while hanging onto his flaw but it just makes things worse and worse wearing his resistance down (this reflects man's heart being softened by the work of the Holy Spirit who dogs him)

4) he has a moment of enlightenment wherein he is confronted with his flaw (the pivot is a shadow of repentance, which of course means to turn around. Interestingly, some have called this beat the moment of grace. It exactly reflects man hearing and responding to the gospel)

5) now he moves form the neg side of story's moral polarity to the pos side. This is where friends become foes; foes become friends (which is what happened when I got saved. The people I thought were stupid freaks became my treasures and to my friends I became a lost cause. This moment represents the propitiation being applied to us)

6) a period of grace often follows as the protag is rewarded for beginning to operate on a higher level (this is that wonderful 'new love' experience a new believer experience is his new relationship with Christ)

7) This period doesn't last long and he is tested. The chickens of his old ways sometimes come to roost here and he must contend with the consequences demonstrating at least some change as he does (God wants to show us where we really are in our sanctification just like the audience wants to see if the character is really growing. so He allows us to be tried by the world, flesh and Devil)

8) a death moment of some kind at the end of the penultimate act (This beat has a lot of different forms but the importance is that it reflects the mortification of our flesh through the sanctification process that means hard trials. In gospel language this is dying to self and living to Christ)

9) a final showdown (This can range from the victory of leaving this body of sin to being in glory all the way to vanquishing some sin that once had mastery over us - either way it's a shadow of the ultimate victory we have in Christ demonstrated by our ability to demonstrate His power and thereby bring Him glory)

It fascinates me that what even the most pagan screenwriters have arrived at through trial and error - in order to get their stories to work - ends up to be nothing less than a perfect overlay of the gospel narrative. I like to think of story beats as an empty glove. I can put the beats of a human so-called redemption story in it; or I can put beats that show the hand of God.

This speaks also to why God likes story and I think you touched on it very nicely by showing how it speaks to His sovereignty over all things. God's majesty is put on display in the gospel. And since story points to the gospel, He is glorified by it to His own great pleasure. All doctrine unfolds at the Cross. His power, righteousness, justice, wisdom, mercy - they're all there. My utter sinfulness and helplessness to do anything about it - the Cross proves those too, or there wouldn't need to be a cross. The gospel is the only true substance of story. All of man's stories are cast shadows. The real question, I think, is will we write stories that point to His true majesty, or will we distort the form of the narrative to convey the false gospel of human self-redemption?

John David Ware said...

Rick,

I agree with much of your reasoning. This does not negate my premise, rather it supports it. It's like looking at the many different faucets of a diamond and recognizing that there is much complexity to appreciate.

You said: "It fascinates me that what even the most pagan screenwriters have arrived at through trial and error."

It may not be trial and error. Our minds seek the truth.

You said: "in order to get their stories to work - ends up to be nothing less than a perfect overlay of the gospel narrative. I like to think of story beats as an empty glove. I can put the beats of a human so-called redemption story in it; or I can put beats that show the hand of God."

True, I think the pride of the human heart has resulted in so many stories removing the "God Character" to assuage the need to feel (even for a moment) that we are powerfully in control of life and destiny. For example, "Walk the Line" is a good movie, but one that is fundamentally dishonest about one of the true motivating forces in the life of Johnny Cash, his faith.

Your last sentence sums it up nicely:

"The real question, I think, is will we write stories that point to His true majesty, or will we distort the form of the narrative to convey the false gospel of human self-redemption?"

John

Batman said...

A horse fell into the mud. The end?

Every story has a beginning, middle and end, just not necessarily in that order. -- Godard said that one first, and has been copied many times since.

All the world's a stage, etc. Shakespeare; Act II Scene VII, As You Like It

It follows that whether or not you believe, it should be possible to tell a good story.

Finally, I seem to recall encouraging you to write stuff like this more often over a year ago. Good to see you finally took my advice ;)