This past July, Emma Coats, a storyboard artist at Pixar, compiled a list of narrative wisdom gleaned from her years working in their animation studio. She originally released these insights as tweets, which accounts for the unusual abbreviations and contractions. Lots of wisdom here. She twote:
1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
What jumps out at you? Do any of these surprise you? Are there any you disagree with? Are there any you would add?
“Read the confessions, the memoirs, the court room transcripts. There is always a line the scoundrel steps across and becomes a wanted thing.” — Leif Enger, So Brave, Young and Handsome
Last month, through the wonders of social media, I learned the sad news that my middle school vice principal had died—Steven Van Horn, or Mr. Van Horn to you and me.
It had been well over half my life since I last thought of him, but seeing his picture there beside his obituary brought back a crystal clear memory of what had to be one of the more formative moments of my young life. It was the day that man paddled me.
It happened when I was in 7th grade, during Mr. Fratus’s math class. Mr. Fratus had left the room for some reason, and while he was gone well over half of the kids used that as an opportunity to get out of their seats and move around his classroom with a kind of cavalier leisure that Mr. Fratus’s generation regarded as a corporal offense. Schools were meant to be places of order and respect for authority.
When the lookout (a necessary thread in the fabric of youthful scheming) warned, “He’s coming!” everyone rushed back to their seats and did their best to act causal. When Mr. Fratus walked back into the room, he regarded us for a moment and said, “Everyone who was up out of their seats while I was gone, out in the hall.”
In January, I wrote a piece about the benefits of following an artist over the course of his or her creative life. Charlie Peacock was my personal Exhibit A. Here is a piece Charlie wrote back in 2010 that dovetails well. It’s about the joy of following a piece of gear– namely, one particular Fender Rhodes– over the trajectory of its creative life. (As a bonus, Charlie also gives us a not-too-shabby mini-history of his early career, and also of the electric piano’s impact on music, offered in the form of hyperlinks.) Enjoy. — Russ Ramsey
This past April  I was in Los Angeles meeting with film producer Brian Wells and music producer/Idol icon Randy Jackson about production work on their soundtracks. Later that evening I met up with Svend Lerche and Ran and Ricky Jackson of The Daylights for Indian and good conversation. I’m working with the band as part of Twenty Ten Music‘s Film/TV partnership with Secret Road. Our most recent placement is the song “Oh Oh” in Rabbit Hole starring Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, and Sandra Oh.
After dinner we headed to the band’s house in Studio City to listen to new songs. Like every band house I’ve ever been to this one was stuffed with gear, including three upright pianos. I made an obvious alliteration about a plethora of pianos. They gave me the Craigslist story on the instruments. Then one of the fellas, pointing to a little dining alcove said, “We’ve got an old electric piano over there.”
“There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when he walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was his mirth.” – G.K. Chesterton, the closing line of Orthodoxy
I love the detail of Scripture. I love the bits God has elected to include—like how Jesus ended his last supper in the upper room, right before his arrest, by singing with his friends. (Mark 14:26) And I love the mystery of what he has left out—like what ever came of Nicodemus, for example. (Jn 19:39)
I am currently working on the follow up to my first book, Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative—a 25 chapter retelling of the story of the need for and the coming of Christ from Genesis through the nativity. The new book will be a Lenten companion—40 chapters tracing the narrative of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus as found in the four Gospels. I hope to release it before the end of the year.
The opening chapters of the new book take us into the early part of Jesus’ story when he was, for all intents and purposes, unknown to the world. Though we read it knowing what is coming, the people around him had no idea who he was or how he was about to change the world.
Charlie Peacock released his new record, No Man’s Land, this past fall. Charlie and I have been friends for close to twenty years, and I was a huge fan for years before that so I asked him for an early copy to review here. He was gracious enough to oblige. I imagined I’d listen to the record, mention a few key high points and invite you to pick up a copy.
That was a few months ago. Yes, life has been busy. But the reason I’m so late in getting to this “review” is because I’ve been spending a lot of time with the record, and it’s stirring things in me that have not so much to do with the record itself (which is, in my estimation, his best work—and for me, that’s saying a lot) as with how a great artist’s work works on those who invest in it over the span of time.
Consider Paul Simon. It was only a few years ago when I discovered Paul Simon. Sure, I knew who he was. I’d heard a bunch of his songs. I even knew I was supposed to say yes if anyone asked if I thought Graceland was one of the best records ever made. I knew all that.
“No poet in the world has written a more beautiful short story.” –Alexander Schröder, about the Book of Ruth
The church where I pastor started this year by going through the Old Testament book of Ruth. Ruth is a short book nestled in between some of the most pivotal and epic stories God’s people would ever pass down through the generations: you’ve got Samson, Joshua, Gideon, and the entrance into the Promised Land on one side and King David, Solomon, and the best and worst of the rise and fall of the Kingdom of Israel on the other.
But there in between is Ruth—part tragedy, part romance, part survival story, and all heart. Goethe called it, “the loveliest complete work on a small scale, handed down to us as an ethical treatise and an idyll.”
When I prepare sermons, I edit with a particular eye. I’m working to put together the key themes and events of a Biblical text in such a way that they take a room full of people to the foot of the cross—to that place where our deepest needs are met in God’s gracious provision.
I believe the power of preaching resides with the Holy Spirit’s work in the hearts of God’s people. At the same time, I also believe God wants me to care deeply about the craft of preaching and my personal development as a communicator. Those two truths make sense together. I approach sermon writing as a skill, an art, and a God-directed mystery, and I want to be more skilled, more artistic, and more God-directed as I grow.
My friend Charlie Peacock (husband of Rabbit Room Press’s own Andi Ashworth) recently posted this comment and the following link to an interview with Paul Simon on his Facebook page. This is the story of a man in a rich, challenging, honest process.
“It’s heartbreaking how divisive people can be when it comes to their opinions about God. There’s nothing so destructive as when the conversation is reduced to: You’re an idiot if you believe – you’re an idiot if you don’t. Like Coltrane, Johnny Cash, Bono, and Dylan, the great American songwriter Paul Simon keeps bringing his spiritual search into the public square in winsome and graceful ways. Here’s a transparent, honest interview that Paul did with PBS earlier in the year. This is how you talk about your spiritual life and quest in public without coming off as a lightweight, a bully, or a know it all. This is human, artistic process where every sphere of life and curiosity finds it’s way into your art. The art informs the world but turns back to you, continuing to inform you, bring you pleasure, and inspiring your ‘eyes to see and ears to hear.'”
What did I think would happen? I suppose I hadn’t really thought about it. Still, what actually did happen came to me as a bit of a surprise.
The concert started at 7:30, the doors opened at 6:00. At around 5:00, I stopped by the venue to buy my ticket. What did I see? A line. There was a line. Fans were already gathering so they could get right up to the front of the stage—fans wearing Stryper t-shirts and holding records they hoped to get autographed.
Why did this surprise me? It wasn’t that Stryper had fans. Of course they had fans. The surprise was how willing these fans were to identify themselves as such. And even more, how unwilling I was to do the same.
Lest you think I’m using Stryper or their fans as the punch line of a joke, let me explain myself. For close to a decade of my life, when I told people I was a Stryper fan it was a badge of pride. Then there came another decade where, when I mentioned liking them, people thought I was joking and I sheepishly denied it. Now I’m in a decade where people buy music, concert tickets, and t-shirts for ’80s big-hair metal because they think it’s “ironic.”
“We will rock the hell out of you.” –Stryper
Last weekend when I heard about a certain concert happening in my city that night, I sent out a tweet that has been bugging me ever since. I twote:
What bugs me most about that tweet is how much effort I spent qualifying something I genuinely wanted to do. “I may or may not…,” “Don’t Judge Me…” Insinuating that if I go, it’s for nostalgia. Why did I feel the need to distance myself from going to see the one band who has probably received more of my money and bedroom wall space than any other in the history of the whammy bar?
For those unfamiliar with Stryper, a little history might be in order. They formed in the early 80’s, appearing on LA’s Sunset Strip music scene with other big-hair metal bands like Motley Crue, Cinderella, Poison, and Ratt. If you know these bands, you get the picture—long hair, spandex, ear rings, make-up, lots of promises to rock people—no matter where they’re from—and to rock them for seemingly unending periods of time.
Stryper, from the beginning, occupied rarified air. If you were going to make it in that industry, there had to be something about you that 1) made you stand out, and 2) made people like you. With their yellow and black attire and their commitment to singing plainly about their faith in Jesus and the free offer of the Gospel, they certainly stood out. However, I expect both of those characteristics made the “make people like you” objective a little more of a battle. Why? Because lyrically and morally, they were swimming against the current of their competing colleagues’ core values.
“One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief. From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.” – Annie Dillard, Total Eclipse
Oh, to have been present at San Diego’s Glorietta Bay on July 4, 2012.
If I add up all the Fourth of Julys, Friday Nights at baseball stadiums and New Years celebrations, I bet I’ve seen close to fifty different fireworks displays over the course of my life. I’ve seen them from my seat in the third balcony at Busch Stadium, from the bed of a pickup truck in rural Indiana, and from a community college front lawn in Kansas City. There was even the fortuitous occasion where I was sitting in the window seat of a Delta flight over St. Louis thirty minutes after dark on Independence Day. Dozens of bursts of light dotted the landscape below as far as I could see. I was surprised by how small they looked from 30,000 feet.
Then there was the time I lay on the pavement of the casino parking lot in an Indian Reservation in central Washington where normal zoning and safety laws did not apply. The rockets burst in the sky directly overhead, raining down little bits of acrid paper all around us.
But nothing I’ve ever seen could come close to what the people of San Diego witnessed this past Fourth of July. What was supposed to be a twenty-minute display ended up lasting just fifteen seconds as a malfunction in the detonators caused the entire display—hundreds of individual fireworks—to all go off at once.
I want to tell you a story—a true story.
The snow had draped everything in a pillowy blanket of white that looked like something straight out of a Thomas Kincade painting. As a country kid, I preferred being outdoors. So when the snow stopped, I layered up, put on my boots, gloves and hat and went out to stand in the middle of the glory God had put on display.
I remember it like it was yesterday. The roads were all but impassable, so I stood alone and uninterrupted. It was bitterly cold—the dry kind that freezes the lungs when you breathe. Everything was so still that the sound of my boots crunching through the surface of the snow muted as though I were in an acoustically perfect concert hall.
I stood at the end of my driveway looking as far as I could past the stand of blue spruces draped in snow to my right when out of the corner of my eye I saw something out of place. There in a 30 foot spruce I saw something amid the alternating layers of bluish-green and pure white that was the color of ash. Unable to make out what it was, I went over to investigate.
One of my greatest joys as a writing pastor is that every year I am obliged to spend several weeks focusing on the two most earth-changing events in history–the birth of Jesus Christ, and his death and resurrection. You cannot make sense of one without the other. I’m currently working on a Lenten Narrative to follow last year’s Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative. With the season of Lent starting this week, I thought I’d offer here a chapter from Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative that looks at the incarnation of Jesus through the lens of his purpose for coming: to defeat the death I deserve and raise me to newness of life with him in his resurrection.
Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative
Chapter 24: The Hearts of Many Revealed
The old man was a member of the old guard, the last of a generation of faithful ministers in Jerusalem’s temple. He was something of a fixture—the kind of man who seemed to have always been there. It was hard to say whether Simeon smelled like the temple or the temple smelled like Simeon, but the minds of those who passed him in the street would often drift to notions of smoke and blood and a guilty resolve to attend to their worship more regularly.
The old guard to which he belonged was on a permanent watch. They were waiting for something in particular, something unique, something wonderful. The years had taught Simeon patience, so he was good at waiting. Still, he felt an unrelenting sense of urgency. He always had. He was waiting for the consolation of his people Israel. He had been waiting a long time, and his people even longer.
Back when The Rabbit Room first went live, part of our mission was to indulge in the pleasure of good and beautiful art. We launched with the understanding that there would always be plenty of sites online where readers could form a community around picking apart and criticizing what they didn’t like about certain music, books and film, but that this wouldn’t be that sort of place. Here at the Rabbit Room, we would focus our energy on the books, music, film and ideas that made us want to gather our friends, sit them down and oblige them to discover the Josh Ritters, Hurt Lockers, and Peace Like A Rivers of the world.
Another unspoken, but pretty obvious reality concerning our DNA can be summarized by slightly modifying that wonderful Buechner quote Eric Peters likes to put before us—“the story of any one of us [here at the Rabbit Room] is in some measure the story of us all—[we’re nerds of varying degrees].”
Todd and Christie Bragg gave me a gift, and I’m going to attempt to regift some of what they gave me with these words. Todd turned 40 the other day. It was Sunday, December 18—the day of the Behold the Lamb of God concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.
Christie put together a huge after party for Todd in the upper balcony of the Ryman. She invited what looked like at least a hundred friends. But it wasn’t just a party. It was a surprise party.
Todd is a drummer in Nashville and he’s worked with countless musicians in this town over the years, so he knows a lot of people. But Todd is not just a drummer with a lot of connections. He’s a very kind and generous friend who, when you’re talking with him, treats you like you’re the only person in the world. So this party wasn’t just a room full of business associates. I imagine most all of them would call Todd not just a friend, but a dear friend.
[Editor’s Note: We want to take a moment to celebrate the release of Russ Ramsey’s first book. He’s worked long and hard on it we’re anxious for each of you to enjoy the fruits of his labor. So congratulations, Russ. I’m happy to add the title of “Author” next to your name on the masthead.
Here’s the first chapter of Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative. If you’d like to download a sample and see what the actual book looks like inside, you can do so here. –Pete Peterson.]
He did not have a home.
People said he survived on little more than wild honey and locusts, and by the look of him, it couldn’t have been much more. He wore a coat of camel hair he cinched together with a leather belt, just like the prophet Elijah had done.
Normally he was the one people stopped to behold, but at this particular moment, as he stood waist-deep in the Jordan, anyone looking at him saw that his attention was fixed on the man from Galilee headed his way. His face wore a mix of astonishment and joy as the man approached.
“Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”