Don’t Forget to Tell a Story

I walked out of Tomorrowland thoroughly disappointed. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect coming in, but I hoped it would, at the very least, be enjoyable. I had enjoyed all of Brad Bird’s movies so far, and Damon Lindelof, the writer, has written several good movies.

Yet Tomorrowland was neither interesting nor enjoyable. And it wasn’t because of some super technical story error. It was because the movie, in my opinion, forgot something basic–movies need to be about something.

Tomorrowland had plenty of good ideas but what it didn’t have was a plot. It was honestly surprising because it isn’t like the director and writers don’t know how to tell a story. They’ve both done some great movies. Bird did Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatoullie, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. All of those were good. Lindelof wrote Star Trek Into Darkness and World War Z, both very enjoyable films.

Tomorrowland forgot to tell a storyWhy, then, did Tomorrowland not have one of the basic story telling elements? I don’t pretend to have the answer to that, but I was reminded of this: I can’t ever forget the basics. Just because a story has a cool structure and great ideas doesn’t mean it’s good.

I have to remember that I’m not telling stories to impress people with the originality of my ideas or the cleverness of my structure. I’m telling a story, and if it isn’t a good story no one will care. When I’m developing story ideas I often get caught up in constructing an interesting format, with refining complex systems in the world of my story, or with developing a miniscule aspect of one character.

In the midst of all that it’s very easy to forget to tell a story. Get the basics down. Then worry about the more complicated aspects. That’s a reminder I needed to have.


Stretching Our Characters

Last night, as I watched an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I was reminded yet again of one simple rule of storytelling: never let your characters get comfortable.

The episode took all of the show’s main characters and put them in situations where we would never imagine them, situations that seem antithetical to who they are. As a result, even though the plot was exceptionally weak, the episode was enjoyable.

This is a lesson I need to take to heart. Sometimes, as I write short stories or novels, or as I read short stories or novels, the authors will allow their characters to sit in their comfort zones. Perhaps a character’s comfort zone is fighting evil, like a James Bond. In that case, giving them more evil to fight doesn’t seem to do anything except let them stay where they’re comfortable. But if James Bond had to, say, let someone else fight evil instead–now he’s being pushed. Now he’s being stretched.

It’s when characters are stretched that I find myself most engaged in a story. Seeing them do what they’re best at is only interesting for so long.

The point being this: I need to remember to always stretch my characters in every way I can think of. I’ve seen a lot of stories suffer from underdeveloped characters due to comfortable scenarios, and I need to be careful to not make that mistake. If they’re comfortable, something’s wrong and the audience will probably lose interest very quickly. I need to heed that idea, and implement it in my own writing.

Realizing Where We’ve Fallen From

I was reading Blaise Pascal recently and I came across this quote:

“We want truth and find only uncertainty in ourselves. We search for happiness and find only wretchedness and death. We are unable not to want truth and happiness, and are incapable of either certainty or happiness. This desire has been left in us as much to punish us as to make us realize where we have fallen from.”

I found this exceptionally powerful, especially as it seems to echo Ecclesiastes 3:11: “Also, He has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” The concept that a desire for truth and happiness is inherent within us is nothing new, but Pascal puts it into beautiful terminology.

Blaise PascalInterestingly enough, a lot of stories seem to be haunted by this desire. The most recent one I blogged about would be my post on “How Eden Haunts Frankenstein.” In that post I argue that Frankenstein tells the story of the fall over, and over, and over again. At the core of Frankenstein is a desire on the part of many of the characters to get back to a place they’ve fallen from.

Pascal takes that idea, of the drive to return to perfection, a step further when he argues that a desire for truth and happiness exists to make us realize that the world once was perfect. Again, that plays out frequently in stories. It’s a theme I’ve been noticing a good bit lately, so expect to see more coming on this point.

In the meantime, I simply wanted to share that quote and comment a little on it. Expect to see some more O’Connor analysis fairly soon and potentially more Pascal–he’s highly quotable.

How Eden Haunts Frankenstein

On the first page of Frankenstein there’s a quote from Paradise Lost that’s omitted, sadly, from some editions. The quote is this:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay,
To mould me man, Did I solicit thee
From Darkness to promote me?

Ignoring this quote is, I think, a mistake. Not only does it set the tone for the story but thinking of Frankenstein through the lens of Paradise Lost provides a perspective that emphasizes one very interesting aspect of the story. See, Paradise Lost is, as we all know, the story of, well, paradise being lost. It’s the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from paradise–from Eden.

Frankenstein Book CoverFrankenstein, I want to argue, tells this same story over, and over, and over again. The entire story of Frankenstein, in one sense, is the story of a fall from Eden and the violent, stark aftermath of that fall. I may be, in arguing this, stepping outside the bounds of authorial intent (though I wouldn’t be surprised if Shelley did intend this), but from a Christian perspective, looking through the lens of Milton’s classic, I think these observations aren’t that far out there.

So what are the paradises and falls that occur in Frankenstein?

The first paradise in Frankenstein isn’t Victor Frankenstein’s. We often forget that the story doesn’t even start with Victor–rather, it starts with “R. Walton” writing letters to his sister, Margaret Walton Saville. As an interesting sidenote, Allen Grove, a professor of English at Alfred University, notes:

“Shelley’s touch is subtle here, but through Walton’s sister, she has inserted herself into the story: Margaret Walton Saville–MWS–Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.”

Regardless, Walton is detailing his exploration of the uncharted Northern seas. He’s taken with the thrill of adventure and discovery as he fulfills his dream of sailing through unknown waters.

In other words, he’s living in the paradise of his dreams. He’s happy and excited regarding what is to come. The only problem is that he’s lonely. He’s living his dream–living in his paradise–and yet he’s lonely. Maybe this is pushing it, but that seems to hearken back to Adam’s own dissatisfaction with Eden–Adam lived in paradise, but he was alone. And that, as God said, was not good.

Walton soon meets a friend in Victor Frankenstein, and Victor begins to tell his story. Here we see the second paradise emerge.

Victor paints the picture of his childhood as idyllic. He’s given free reign to explore and learn, and he immerses himself in reading outdated scientific works. In this we see a subtle set-up of another paradise. Not only is Victor perfectly happy, enjoying life with his friends, but he also is plunging himself into mastering the works of outdated and incorrect scientific theories. He does master these theories and thinks he has gained an immense amount of scientific knowledge.

And then comes his fall. It’s small, brief, but significant. The first fall portrayed in Frankenstein occurs, I think, when Victor meets his professor of science at the university. Victor tells him the books and authors he has learned by heart, proud of his achievement. The professor responds like this:

“Every minute,” continued M. Krempe with warmth, “every instant that you have wasted on those books is utterly and entirely lost. You have burdened your memory with exploded systems and useless names. Good God! In what desert land have you lived, where no one was kind enough to inform you that these fancies which you have so greedily imbibed are a thousand years old and as musty as they are ancient? I little expected, in this enlightened and scientific age, to find a disciple of Albertus Magnus and Paracelsus. My dear sir, you must begin your studies entirely anew.”

Victor is devastated. He’s lost the paradise of knowledge he thought he had.

But his fall isn’t to end there. Because, as quickly as he falls from one paradise he enters another. He applies himself to new studies, becoming skilled in modern science. He begins work on the creation of a new life–the creature. This work doesn’t last long, though.

His complete devotion to this project is a paradise. He is fulfilling a childhood dream as well, just like Walton. Visions of his creation worshiping him, honoring him as a god fill his mind. And then he brings the monster to life and is revolted.

He was in a place of perfection. He discerned nothing wrong or harmful with what he was doing–in his mind, he was in paradise. Then, when he finally completes his project, he sees what the creature really is and his supposed paradise is lost.

Mary ShelleyBut Victor’s fall isn’t complete. That happens when the monster kills his nephew William. Then, it seems, Victor’s innocence, Victor’s perfect childhood, is shattered by grief. It’s only expanded when someone else is blamed for William’s death and executed. Victor has fallen from paradise and finds himself lost in a world where he has unleashed destruction and evil.

But the creature has his own fall.

See, after Victor deserts him, the creature is angry and frustrated but not murderous. He runs off, taking shelter in the woods until he comes upon a small hut in which lives the De Lacey family.

According to the monster, this family is, though they are poor, in paradise. They love each other, they get along, they care for each other. The monster, too, is in paradise, beginning to fancy these people as his friends. Although he doesn’t let them see him, he watches them all day and night. He chops firewood for them in secret, providing them with food and warmth.

The creature has a vision of coming into the hut and greeting the family, explaining all he has done for them, and becoming close friends with them.

The creature perceives no fault and no flaw. He is in paradise where he thinks he has friends, and he thinks the De Lacey family is also in paradise. And then, in what must be one of the most tragic moments of the book, the creature reveals himself to the family and they drive him off, revolted by his hideous appearance. The family is traumatized and so is the monster. He feels betrayed and alone–he’s run into reality and his paradise is lost.

So is the family’s. Their trauma tears them apart, forcing them to move out for fear of the creature’s return. The creature watches as they pack up and leave, their perfection shattered by him. As they ride away he sees his innocence fade into the distance. In a moment of rage he burns their hut down, torching the last physical reminder of the paradise he lost.

Paradise LostNear the end of the story Walton also loses his paradise when his crew refuses to go on, forcing him to turn back under threat of mutiny.

Thus, Frankenstein is, it appears, the story of fall after fall. First Victor, then the creature, then the De Lacey family, and then Walton. In the rest of the story, after the fall of the creature, both Victor and the creature spend their time longing for what they’ve lost. The creature longs for the comfort of friends that he found in the De Lacey family. Victor longs for the return to the idyllic world of his youth through the destruction of the creature that ruined it.

There’s a lot going on, thematically speaking, in Frankenstein. I personally wouldn’t dare to make the claim that the loss of Eden and the longing for its return is the main theme, but I think there’s enough evidence to support the conclusion that it is a theme.

Because, even after all the characters have fallen from paradise they’re still haunted by Eden. Eden won’t let them go.

None of them search in the right way for this paradise, but all of them search. It seems the story of Frankenstein is a retelling of the fall, and humanity’s subsequent striving to regain Eden. It seems Frankenstein tells the story of us all, and that story is the story of a longing for a land we lost.

Tolkien was right. All stories are about the fall. And they’re about the fall because our whole being is soaked in a visceral sense of exile from Eden.

Eden haunts us, and Eden haunts our stories.

You Know, You Really Should Outsource Your Dark Lord Killing

I have a pet peeve when it comes to storytelling. Actually, I have several, but I’d like to talk about one in particular, and that’s the one I call the “Chosen One” motivation.

Now I should be entirely clear, because many stories use the “Chosen One” as a plot point; my problem is not with the plot point, but with the motivation. Just to explain, here’s a breakdown of what the Chosen One plot point is.

The Chosen One plot point boils down to simply this: a character, for some reason or another, is (as the name implies) the “Chosen One.” He is the only one who can or will defeat the Dark Lord/fulfill the prophecy/save the planet/lead the rebellion/[insert other heroic action here].

Usually this is accompanied by a prophecy of some kind that foretold his or her coming and ultimate triumph. Again, my problem is not with the plot point itself, per se. Many good stories use this to great effect. Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are two that jump immediately to mind.

Outsource Your Dark Lord Killing

My pet peeve is what I call the “Chosen One” motivation. The Chosen One motivation is something entirely different. If you look at those last two examples I listed of stories that have “Chosen Ones” there’s at least one thing they have in common. In both Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter the Chosen Ones have exterior character motivations for taking on the Dark Lord. They don’t take on the Dark Lord because they’re the Chosen Ones, they take him or her on because there is something driving them to do it.

Maybe it’s because they chose to get involved themselves, out of a sense of responsibility. Maybe it’s because they have a personal vendetta against the Dark Lord, as in Harry Potter and Star Wars.

But none of these characters take on evil because they are the Chosen One.

This is where my pet peeve comes in. Many stories use the fact that their main characters are the Chosen Ones as motivation for them to take on the Dark Lord. The logic goes something like this: they are the Chosen Ones, so they are now taking on the Dark Lord.

Frankly, this to me seems plain lazy. Instead of ensuring that there’s a real reason the main character is doing what he’s doing, they simply use the fact that he is the main character as the motivation.

These situations lead me to ask this question of the main character: why not just outsource your Dark Lord killing? I mean, it’s going to cost you a lot to take him on yourself, so why not just hire someone else to do it? This motivation rips me out of the story, and my interest wanes quickly.

I find myself falling prey to this on occasion, and so this post is for my benefit as well. I need to ensure that I’m giving my characters real motivation, and that’s oftentimes incredibly difficult. At the end of the day, though, it’s worth it, because if I do it well, then the main characters can’t outsource their problems. And once there’s a problem they have to solve themselves–well, then, we have a story.

People have a habit of saying, “What is the theme of your story?” and they expect you to give them a statement: “The theme of my story is the economic pressure of the machine on the middle class”—or some such absurdity. And when they’ve got a statement like that, they go off happy and feel it is no longer necessary to read the story.
Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.
—Flannery O’Connor

The Stories Are True

If Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien agree on something it’s probably a good idea to take a close look at it. It doesn’t mean they’re right, but when three brilliant minds like that agree it deserves our attention. And that’s not even touching on people like Flannery O’Connor and others who believed the same thing.

So what do these great minds agree on? Andrew Peterson, a singer-songwriter, says it well in his song “All Things New”: “Hold on to the promise/the stories are true.”

The Stories Are TrueWhat does that mean that, “the stories are true”? What stories is Peterson talking about? Given what I know of Andrew Peterson, I think the answer is quite simple. The stories are fairy tales, fiction like Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, The Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia. But that answer only leads to another, perhaps more perplexing question: how can we say that these stories are true? The Lord of the Rings is a fantasy–in fact, all of those stories are.

They never really happened, so how can they be true?

Of course, that argument assumes that the fantasies are really just that–fantasy. I want to ask how fantasy stories can be true, and attempt an answer based off what I know of Andrew Peterson, as well as the trio of Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien. The question, however, I want to approach in a somewhat odd manner. The assumption is that those stories can’t be true because they are fantasy. I want to ask, “are they really fantasy?”

What’s the basic plot of these stories? In fact, let’s limit it even further and examine some things that are even more fantastical. Let’s just look at classic fairy-tales like Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Cinderella. So, what’s the basic plot there?

Those three examples, at least, are based around one central plot: the princess is waiting to be rescued by her prince. She’s trapped, overcome by some evil enchantment that she–at least in some of the stories–walks into of her own accord. Those fairytales tell a story of waiting for rescue, waiting for the prince to break the spell.

The Apostle Paul, in Philippians 3, writes, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” The stories are true, not just in the sense that they say true things. I, for one, thought that was what Peterson meant for a long time.

I thought Sleeping Beauty is true because it tells us that good triumphs. Cinderella and Snow White condemn evil. I thought that when we say, “the stories are true” all we meant was that they convey true things. I made the mistake that Leland Ryken has written a good bit about–looking for propositional truth claims in literature, rather than looking at stories as stories. For sure, Sleeping Beauty tells us that good triumphs over evil, and that most certainly is true. What I failed to realize is, if that’s all Peterson was trying to convey he would have said something like, “the stories tell the truth.”

The stories do tell the truth, but the stories themselves are also true. The princess, us, is waiting for her Prince. That’s what Paul says, plain and simple. Just like Snow White awaits a prince from somewhere beyond herself to save her, we await a Savior from heaven. We are waiting for someone to take us to our true home, and to rescue us from the evil enchantment. And now, around Christmas time, is one of the best times to remember this. Christmas time is when we remember the story of Christ’s birth–a story of a Savior from heaven coming to earth, facing the serpent, and ultimately triumphing. And isn’t that what all these stories are?

The stories are true. Sleeping Beauty has fallen asleep and is waiting to be woken up. Cinderella is trapped by the evil all around, and is waiting for someone to come looking for her. The princess has eaten the evil fruit, and she awaits a Prince to undue that damage.