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The Shape of the Stories We Tell

[Note: This has been adapted from the Hutchmoot 2011 session of the same name. Click here for a portion of Travis Prinzi’s contribution to that same session.]

What does the shape of a story look like? A lot of people might say it looks like a Bell curve: setup, rising conflict, and resolution. That’s the typical answer, and there’s nothing wrong with that, in fact, there’s a lot that’s exactly right about it, and there are a thousand and one books on the subject to prove it. But I don’t think that’s the whole picture. The reason for the question is that we want a way to predict whether a story is going to work. We want a pattern for our creation. We want rules to write by.

So what makes a story work? Every critic’s got a theory, me included—or you wouldn’t be reading this. The usual suspects are character development, plot structure, good research, snappy dialog, or loud noises and explosions (if your name is Michael Bay). We could all probably sit down and make a list of films and books that we think did or didn’t work, couldn’t we? Transformers—didn’t work. District 9—did work. Star Wars—worked. Battle Beyond the Stars—didn’t work. Interview with a Vampire—worked. Twilight—well…I say it didn’t work. It’s harder to play this game with books because books that don’t work quickly fade into obscurity and we never even hear of them, but trust me, for every Gilead there’s another diary-based memoir out there that’s an interminable bore. I’d be willing to bet that if we all made a list right now, a list of books and movies that did or didn’t work, we’d find a lot of common ground. We’d find a wide overlap of opinion indicating that there is a pretty clear consensus of what has worked and what has not.

So the question is why? Why specifically. To say that answer is “good writing” is too easy, too vague. And, after all, a tale can be told in lean, exquisite prose and still not achieve any great literary height. Bookstores are filled with essentially well-written books that tell essentially good stories and 99% of them will be utterly forgotten. We can attribute some of that to bad marketing, bad timing, bad cover design, or even just bad luck. But for many, I want to suggest that the prime culprit is bad form. I don’t mean that they are rude or tacky (though that’s sometimes the case), but that there is some flaw in the formation of the work that allows it to rise only so far and no farther.

Well, oddly enough, as an author I spend a lot of time thinking about this kind of thing. I don’t exaggerate when I tell you that what runs through my brain while I’m in the shower, or driving down the road, or pulling on my socks, is usually the problem of why The Adjustment Bureau was so bad when it had so many good ideas, or why Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is so darn good even when it’s doing nothing more than describing Jane Austen-style English socialites. This stuff haunts me. I kid you not. But I’m keen to understand these things because when I sit down to write my own stories, I’m anxious to avoid the pitfalls of the one and take advantage of the sure ground beaten by the other.

Very early in the writing of The Fiddler’s Gun, I stumbled onto something that has been a continual source of revelation. It seems obvious to me now, but at the time it took me by complete surprise. It first happened while I was writing a scene about halfway through the book. Fin, the main character, had grown up angry and reckless and had suffered a lot of hurt, and just when she thought all that was about to be redeemed, just when she thought she knew the path her life was going to take, just when she thought things were going to go her way, everything changed—violently and dramatically. She found herself backed into a corner, thrust into an untenable position, and she did some awful things that she scarcely thought herself capable of. When she emerged on the other side of that crisis, she had blood on her hands, and she was faced with the absolute certainty that her life had changed completely.

While writing this one particular scene, and the one following it, in which she has to come to terms with the consequences of her actions, I was an emotional wreck. I felt the pain of that character so keenly, as if it was my own, and I wondered then, for the first time, if this peculiar feeling might not be a dim reflection of the nature of God. Like God, I had created a thing, this character, I gave her life, will, desires, and then she cried out in pain and I wept with her. That was the beginning of a new way of thinking for me.

After that, I cherished my characters and the story I was creating in a far more personal way than I ever had before, and I began to imagine that maybe the power inherent in a good story had less to do with proper punctuation and clever plotting than it did with reflecting the image of its creator.

What, I thought, if the ideal shape of the story I’m telling, is me—my shape. My creation in my own image. What moves me, moves the story. My emotional and spiritual shape carves out the tone of the story. My knowledge and my experience inform the story, reflect me. Much of this happens unconsciously, of course, but to know it, to dwell on it, is, I think, to really own it and develop it as a tool for effective use.

This thought persisted in my mind for a long time and then one day, at the urgent behest of my far more intelligent wife, I sat down and read a book by a formidable looking woman named Dorothy Sayers. The book is called The Mind of the Maker. It’s certainly not a book for everyone. There’s a lot of difficult to penetrate philosophy involved and, understandably, that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But she struck a chord in that book that resonated with me deeply and personally. The central focus of the book, as indicated by the title, is the way in which the creative process of the artist acts as a sort of conduit by which we can better know and experience the mind of God.

She sets up an analogy that she uses throughout the entire book and it is this: That an act of creation can be represented as a trinity in the same way that God is revealed in the Holy Trinity. The Holy Trinity, of course, is made up of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each serving specific functions and each definable in different ways, yet all still part of one unified whole. Sayer’s analogy sets up a creative trinity like so: Idea (Father), Energy (Son), and Power (Holy Spirit).

As soon as I read that I started nodding my head, thinking, “Yes. Yes! YES! That’s it exactly!” And then she proceeded to blow my mind wide open, taking the inkling I’d had for years and carrying it in all sorts of directions that I’d never imagined. She’s really quite something . . . and funny too.

So how does this idea of the creative trinity work?

Here’s an excerpt from a play called The Zeal of Thy House by Dorothy Sayers:

“First, there is the Creative Idea, passionless, timeless, beholding the whole work complete at once, the end in the beginning: and this is the image of the Father.”

Have you ever awakened in the middle of the night having just dreamed the most brilliant story, or song, or painting, and thought, “Man! If only I had time to sit down and capture that, it would be amazing—the next Wizard of Oz, or Mona Lisa, or ‘Sound of Silence!’”?

Essentially, that’s the Idea—aptly named, too. Like God the Father, we can’t see it, it hasn’t any form that we can know, and yet it’s perfectly formed, perfectly whole. In creative terms, it’s not just the Idea—it’s the ideal.  But to communicate the perfection and wonder of our Idea we define it in human terms that others can partake of and understand, which brings us to the second person of the creative trinity:

“Second, there is the Creative Energy begotten of that idea, working in time from the beginning to the end, with sweat and passion, being incarnate in the bonds of matter: and this is the image of the Word.”

This is the creative act. This is the butt-in-chair work. This is the incarnation of the Idea brought into the world for all to see. It’s separate from the Idea, it looks different, acts different, but is still one with it—is the expression of it.

Luke 10:22 says:

“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son…”

Obviously, this is Jesus, the Incarnation of the Father, talking. But let’s plug in Sayers’ analog and look at the same verse.

“All things are committed to the Energy by its Idea. The artist cannot know what the Energy is except through Idea, and no one can know the Idea except through the Energy…”

Are you following me? As a writer, I have ideas all the time. I’m driving down the road and out of the blue an idea pops into my head out of nowhere. It arrives fully formed. I see it in its entirety. I feel the emotion of it, the sound of it, the pace, everything, all in an instant, all perfect. And that Idea, that otherworldly vision is what I hold onto in order to inform the story when I begin the act of incarnating it. Every scene, every word, is chosen such that it will serve that greater Idea. So all things are committed to the story, to the Energy, by that over-arching Idea. And no one can know my Idea except through my work of writing the story down, incarnating it.

“Third, there is the Creative Power, the meaning of the work and its response in the lively soul: and this is the image of the indwelling Spirit.”

(She just said “indwelling.” Ron would be so proud.)

This one is slippery. It’s the power, the gift given to whoever accepts the Energy, the Word, even when that’s the artist himself. It’s the reaction to the work, the interpretation of it, the personal, individual way in which each reader, or listener, or viewer is moved by it.

The Holy Spirit is always a slippery thing to talk about because people experience it in so many different ways, and that applies to this part of the analogy too. I love what Sayers says here:

“We cannot follow the movement of our own eyes in a mirror. We can, by turning our head, observe them in this position and in that position with respect to our body, but never in the act of moving themselves from one position to the other, and never in the act of gazing at anything but the mirror. […] The eye is the instrument by which we see everything, and for that reason it is the one thing we cannot see with truth. […] This is why books about the Holy Ghost are apt to be curiously difficult and unsatisfactory—we cannot really look at the movement of the Spirit, just because It is the Power by which we do the looking.”

She’s right isn’t she? The Holy Spirit is always the most mysterious person of the Trinity. And in the creative analogy it’s the same. The Power is the gift given by the Energy. When I watch a movie like Magnolia and I’m so deeply moved and wrecked emotionally, that’s the Power of the Idea and the Energy at work in me. The Power is what other people take away from a work of art. It’s even the gift given back to the artist that created it.

So that’s the basic analogy. She goes into a lot more detail that I don’t want to get into here, but if you’re a writer or sub-creator of any kind, I encourage you to read the whole book. It’s dense sometimes, but it’s worth it.

Let me sidetrack a minute to talk to those of you who don’t consider yourself artists. Sayers speaks to you too, and I don’t want you to think there’s nothing for you take away from this. I think it’s fair to say that we all, even the non-artists, have ideas, whether it’s for a book or a song or a movie. Most people just think, “Ah, I’ve got this great story, but I’m not a screenwriter—so darn.” Sayers points out that the very act of imagining the Idea is a form of the Energy itself and though no one else is ever privy to it, the Power still flows back to you, the artist. Every human is a creative being because we are created in the image of the creative being. So this creative trinity is at work in all of us, all the time. That means that those ideas of yours are worth having, worth pondering, worth day-dreaming about, because the Power they give you is a gift. Those creative sparks are reflections of the mold that made you. And who knows, maybe one day you’ll sit down and start writing, or painting, or dancing. To create, even in your own mind, is part of the natural state of your being. So embrace it, even if only in the privacy of your own dreams

For me, as a writer, a sub-creator, Sayers’ system rings true, very true. I see in it exactly a reflection of what it feels like to create. When I sit down to write a scene I feel the Idea, and I express it in Energy, and then by the Power I perceive how clear that expression has been achieved. But this still hasn’t told us why some stories work and some don’t. So far we’ve only described the creative process, we haven’t talked much about the result. And this is where I think Sayers’ analogy really comes in handy.

When we talk about the Holy Trinity, we’re always careful to insist that the three are one, there is perfect unity, no part is greater than, or less than, any other. Therefore a picture of the Trinity is rightly an equilateral triangle—a triangle in which all sides are equal.

But when we are talking about the creative trinity of Idea, Energy, and Power, we are talking about a human process. And humans, of course, are imperfect, as are their creations. So it follows that when we engage the creative trinity and created a work of art, a diagram of our own trinity will not be equilateral. It will be a scalene triangle. The perfect trinity is the ideal, but a scalene trinity is the reality.

This means that a work might be strong in Idea, but weak in Energy and Power. Or it might be strong in Power and Idea, but weak in its Energy. The trinity is lop-sided, imperfect.

That probably sounds really confusing, but let’s look at some examples and I think you’ll see what I mean.

The Adjustment Bureau was a movie that came out last year. Did anyone see it? I was really excited about it. It starred Matt Damon and Emily Blount and based on the trailer it looked like exactly the sort of philosophical sci-fi I geek out about. The basic premise is that a rising politician has a chance meeting with a girl one day and falls in love with her—but it was never supposed to happen. The mysterious Adjustment Bureau is in control of everyone’s lives, dictating their every move and this one slipped past them and has caused all sorts of potential chaos. It aimed to be a movie about fate versus free will. It was terrible. It was full of logical problems and dead end storylines and abandoned ideas. For the entire two-hour running time I felt like it was constantly on the verge of becoming good—but it never did, it kept letting me down. It didn’t work.

So what does a movie look like if you plot its trinity as a triangle? I suggest that it would have a strong Idea (this would be the longest side of the triangle), but because its execution (think script) is weak, its Energy side is about half the length of its Idea. And the result is that its Power side is necessarily shortened as well.

You can do the same with any book or movie or work of art. The Lord of the Rings, for instance, is one that I’d suggest is strong in all three areas of the trinity and is, therefore, approaching equilateral. Opinions will vary (on any piece of work) but the method is useful.

So what we’re doing here is looking at the shape of a story, and as the shape approaches the equilateral ideal, it grows in overall effectiveness. If we consider great works of art—A Tale of Two Cities, Godric, Paradise Lost, Bach, Beethoven, Rembrandt—what do we find? We find works whose trinity is strong, mighty even, in all three persons—in the Idea, the Energy, and the Power. This is what we as creators are aiming for. We contend with our Energy to perfectly express an Idea so that its Power can be fully realized.

Now, remember what I said at the beginning? That perhaps the ideal shape of a story ought to be my own—my shape? The closer we bring our creative trinity to perfection, the more perfectly we are creating in our own image, and the better and more effective our work will be. But what does that mean exactly: to create in my own image?

First let me say what it does not mean. It doesn’t mean narcissism. Creation is not an act of self-worship. And it doesn’t mean mere self-expression. What I mean by creating in my own image is that when I create, it is right that what I make will be true, as near as I can make it, to what I know of my own Self. I will not create in a way that runs contrary to my own person (unless I do so in irony).

Sayers’ has this to say:

“A writer cannot create a character or express a thought or emotion which is not within his own mind…What happens is something like this. When making a character he in a manner separates and incarnates a part of his own living mind. He recognizes in himself a powerful emotion—let us say, jealousy. His activity then takes this form: Supposing this emotion were to become so strong as to dominate my whole personality, how should I feel and how should I behave? In imagination he becomes the jealous person and thinks and feels within that frame of experience, so that the jealousy of Othello is the true creative expression of the jealousy of Shakespeare.”

So if I create in my own image, I create from within myself in a way that is true to my own being—my own humanity, my own experience as a man, as a Marine, as a teacher, a brother, a son, a sinner, a child of God.

In other words, write what you know, write what you are. You must invest your own shape into your story, even if you do so unconsciously.

But wait, there’s another level here isn’t there?

We ourselves are created. Created in the image of the Creator. But we live in a fallen world. We exist within the context of a fallen and imperfect creation. The result is that even if we achieve a perfect image of ourselves in our work, a perfect unity of Idea, Energy, and Power, that can only be a perfected image of an imperfect being. We are warped, and therefore so will be our efforts in creation.

I want to suggest that for our work to be truly great, we must first bring our own lives into a more perfect Trinitarian alignment. Just like the stories we create, we are all lopsided, scalene triangles, but as we grow in our faith, in our understanding, in our reliance on the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, our lives, too, become more perfectly shaped. And when we are, ourselves, more perfectly formed, so, then, will our creations, made in our image, more clearly reflect the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. This is ought to be the goal of every sub-creator, every artist: To align himself so truly with his Creator, that we may present in our own creation a true image of Him.

Is this, then, the shape of a Great Work? A work aligned with the image of its creator, who is, in turn, aligned with the ultimate Creator? I don’t want to imply that only a staunch Trinitarian Christian is capable of creating a great work of art. That is clearly not the case. An artist of any belief, or even no belief, may create powerful and lasting works of immense strength in Idea, Energy, and Power and it is through such masterful realization of the creative trinity that they often reveal something of the true nature of the world, or even of God himself.

I suggest, though, that as Christians we ought to be more likely than most to reflect the true nature of things in our art, simply because we ought to be more closely aligned to our own Creator. The reality, however, is that far too often, Christian works tend to be much stronger in Power (emotion) than in Idea or Energy. A great work requires that its creative trinity be as near equilateral as the artist can make it. Strong in Idea. Excellent in Energy. And, finally, potent in Power. As artists we cannot forsake our craft in pursuit of its power.

So do not take any of this to mean that the “best” Christians (whatever that may mean) will become the best artists. This is the ideal but it is not necessarily the reality. The “best artists” are generally the “best artists” and I fully expect things to remain that way. What we can hope for though is that those artists may one day, through Christ, find themselves in full alignment with their Creator, and then go on to create the great works of the next millennium. And we Christians ought to go on working late into the night, perfecting our craftsmanship, incarnating our Ideas more effectively, and wrestling those triangles of ours ever closer to perfection.

We each have this hope, though: that every stitch of Creation itself is one day coming new. And in the dawn of that new creation, all of our lopsided triangles will be set right. We will all find ourselves in perfect alignment with the Father, through the Son, and invested fully with the power of the Spirit. And in those coming days, we shall all create Great Works, and they each, every one, will bear a true reflection: a flawless image of God.


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