God’s Immutability, Monday Monologues, January 7, 2018 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

In today’s podcast, I will pray for a Steady Hand and talk about God’s Immutability.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on the link below.

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

God’s Immutability, Monday Monologues, January 8, 2018 (podcast)

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Advent_Mas_2018

Continue Reading

Wells Exercises Moral Vision, Part 2

David Wells, Losing Our VirtueDavid Wells. 1998. Losing Out Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. (Goto Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Wall Street has many proverbs that describe rookie investor mistakes. Famous last words of a rookie, for example, might be: “this time is different.” Or, for the rookie day trader: “trees don’t grow to the sky.” Or, one that might have saved a few tech fortunes that I know in the mid-1990s:“don’t confuse luck with smarts.” Each of these statements of Wall Street wisdom could easily apply also to the subject of human morality.

In part one of this review of David Wells’ book, Losing Our Virtue, I focused on summarizing Wells’ basic argument. In part two I examine his arguments in more depth.

Classical and Postmodern Spirituality

Addressing primarily an evangelical audience, Wells identifies two distinct contemporary spiritualities that both claim an evangelical heritage (belief in the Trinity, divinity of Christ, the resurrection, inspiration of scripture, and other core doctrines). In that sense, neither is generationally defined, but they differ in their response to postmodernism. In particular, in classical spiritualty, what is moral is central and in postmodern spirituality, it is not (34). The postmodern churches are counterculture being more therapeutic, more individualistic, and more anti-establishment (32).

Wells sees an additional distinction in the way that these two spiritualities experience moral questions. The classical church experience moral through guilt while the postmodern church experiences it through shame. (34) Here Wells sees of this shame:

“[There is] very little of which people are ashamed should they get caught or be exposed. It is, rather, the same of being naked within one’s self. It is shame experienced as inner emptiness, deprivation, loss, and disorientation. It is shame that is more psychological in nature than moral.”(35)

Citing Lewis Smedes, Wells observes that we “feel guilty for what we do. We feel shame for what we are.”(130)

Nothing here in the postmodern spirituality suggests being stricken by the moral presence of God (41), as we read:

 “O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!  If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?”(Ps 130:2-3)

Where the classical spirituality focuses on God’s truth, the postmodern spirituality centers on God’s power; where the classical spirituality experiences God’s present through believing in his word and trusting in Christ’s work, the postmodern experiences God’s presence through the emotions and bodily actions—hands raised, swaying to the music, and release of pent up emotions (43). The postmodern piety has a mystical nature where God’s transcendent holiness cannot be experienced and parables, like the prodigal son, that presume the truth of sin seem almost inconceivable (45-49).

Character Versus Personality

Wells makes an important distinction between character, which arises from our inner life and virtues, and personality, which focuses on outward appearances. He writes:

“Today, we cultivate personality (a word almost unknown before the twentieth century) far more than we do character, and this is simply the concomitant to the way in which values have come to replace the older sense of virtue…Character is good or bad, while personality is attractive, forceful, or magnetic.”(96-97)

In some sense, the “hollowing out of the self” began with this emphasis on exterior characteristics and is exemplified by the rise of celebrities over heroes. Wells notes, citing Daniel Boorstin:

“The hero was distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark. The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media.”(100)

Neglect of the inner life is akin to devaluing our experience of God. Wells observes:

“If the narcissist classically has a shrunken, fragmentary self, our culture has similarly become hollowed out and lost its core. If the narcissist covers up the emptiness by exaggerated self-importance and fantasies of power, our culture is covering up its hollowness by fads and fashions, ceaseless consuming, and the constant excitement of fresh sexual conquest.”(108)

While someone of strong moral character has no need of “buzz,” personality addicts live for public approval. Pastors are not the ones often guilty of being people pleasers. In Washington, the joke is that most dangerous place to stand is between a particular congressional representative (or senator or president) and the television cameras.

Shame and Guilt

Wells observes that Americans are often subject to crippling shame, but we do not belong to the same kind of honor and shame society that we read about in the Bible because of our individualism. For most part, we do not feel guilty about much—people go on television and tell the most intimate details of their lives. We hold group identities so lightly that we do not feel guilty in letting them down the way ancients and non-western people might feel guilt. Wells writes:

“In a narcissistic culture, Donald Capps sums up, people ‘do not experience guilt to any significant degree’ in the sense of having failed objective moral norms, and yet, despite this fact, they still do not feel whole and happy. They are, instead, burdened by ‘a deep, chronic, and often inexplicable sense of shame. It is this, rather than guilt, that makes them feel ‘that something is seriously wrong with them.’ This sense, though, is internalized. It is psychological, not social. This is what makes us different from traditional ‘shame cultures’”(167)

This sense of shame accordingly comes across as been unworthy, unwanted, unclean, or just unlovable, and it masks the ability of many people to experience God’s grace.

Recovering our Moral Vision

Wells sees the church needing to undertake two things in recovering its moral vision. The first thing is:

 “it will have to become courageous enough to say that much that is taken as normative in the postmodern world is actually sinful and it will have to exercise new ingenuity in learning how to speak about sin to a generation for whom sin has become an impossibility.”(179)

In the twenty years since Wells penned these words, little evidence can be cited to suggest that the church has taken up this first challenge. The second thing is:

“the church itself is going to have to become more authentically morally, for the greatness of the Gospel is now seen to have become quite trivial and inconsequential in its life.” (180)

Again, there is little evidence that the church has taken up this second challenge. As a general rule, the church has not staked out morally as a field that it even attempts to play on. If anything, it has run away from teaching morality which is often associated with the folk ways of the builder and boomer generations rather than a challenge facing every generation equally.


David Wells’ Losing Our Virtuefocuses on the question of Christian morality in the postmodern period better known for its sexual obsessions and liberality. As leaders in all aspects of society, from our politicians to our academics to entertainment to the church, crash and burn in moral failures in daily news accounts, Wells’ stark assessment of postmodern morality rings ever truer. This book desires another look from today’s academics and frontline pastors.


Boorstin, Daniel J. 1962. The Image; or, What Happened to the American Dream. New York: Athemneum.

Capps, Donald. 1993. The Depleted Self: Sin in a Narcissistic Age. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Smedes, Lewis B. 1993. Shame and Grace: Healing the Shame We Don’t Deserve.New York: HarperCollins.

Wells Exercises Moral Vision, Part 2

Also see:

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/2018_Character

Continue Reading

Character, Monday Monologues, November 5, 2018 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In today’s podcast, I pray over formation and talk about Character.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on the link below.

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Character, Monday Monologues, November 5, 2018 (podcast)

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/2018_Character

Continue Reading


Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ“You did not choose me, but I chose you and 

appointed you that you should go and bear fruit”  

(John 15:16)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

What is a Christian?  

Is a Christian someone who has been baptized and confirmed or is it someone who draws closer to Christ with each passing day? The formalities of baptism and confirmation mark Christendom and the institutional church while the relational act of drawing closer to Christ is often associated with the Jesus (or pietist) movement.⁠1 Mission circles actively debate this question, in part, because formal church membership acts can bring persecution, arrest, and even death.

The Ancient Church

For scripture and for the ancient church, formality or relationship posed a false dichotomy. Jesus invited his disciples into relationship a long time before the church even existed:

“As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him.” (Matt 9:9)

Still, even Jesus insisted on some formalities:

“So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 10:32-33)

Later on the church’s indoctrination could take years before a new believer underwent baptism, suggesting that baptism was not a mere formality. Clearly, the early church took discipling seriously and engaged the inner life of the disciple beyond the reciting of a few Bible verses and a confessional statement.

Character Versus Personality

In his study of today’s moral dilemma facing the church, Wells makes a distinction between character, which arises from our inner life and virtues, and personality, which focuses on outward appearances. He writes:

“Today, we cultivate personality (a word almost unknown before the twentieth century) far more than we do character, and this is simply the concomitant to the way in which values have come to replace the older sense of virtue…Character is good or bad, while personality is attractive, forceful, or magnetic.” (Wells 1998, 96-97)

In some sense, the “hollowing out of the self” began with this emphasis on exterior characteristics and is exemplified by the rise of celebrities over heroes. Wells notes, citing Daniel Boorstin:

“The hero was distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark. The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media.” (Wells 1998, 100)

The focus on external appearances and the neglect of the inner life are akin to devaluing our experience of God, even if we believe that we take faith seriously. Wells observes:

“If the narcissist classically has a shrunken, fragmentary self, our culture has similarly become hollowed out and lost its core. If the narcissist covers up the emptiness by exaggerated self-importance and fantasies of power, our culture is covering up its hollowness by fads and fashions, ceaseless consuming, and the constant excitement of fresh sexual conquest.” (108)

While someone of strong moral character has no need of “buzz,” personality addicts live for public approval. Pastors are not the ones often guilty of being people pleasers. In Washington, the joke is that most dangerous place to stand is between a particular congressional representative (or senator or president) and the television cameras. 

Looking Beyond Personality 

 In the midst of a culture that constantly shouts at us, it can be hard to hear the still, small voice of God. If the shouting creates a crisis atmosphere that tempts us to ignore our inner life, to abandon our walk with Christ, and to evaluate our worth by secular standards, then our culture forms our character and our number one priority is not God, as required by the first Commandment (Exod 20:3-5). We commit idolatry and our identity lies in our family, work, gender, and other things. 

Identity is critical to Christian ethical practice. Just like fire fighters who run into burning buildings, not away from them, our identities shape our actions. This makes character formation a priority for Christian families and the church. 

Number One Priority

Jesus constantly talked about the heart and loving the right things—his way of talking about character formation and an allusion to the first Commandment—as we read:

“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45)

For the Hebrew, heart and mind are undivided, components of a unified whole, as we are reminded in the Shema, the Jewish Daily Prayer, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:5) that Jesus repeats in his Greatest Commandment discourse (Matt 22:36-40).

If we act out of our identity, then obviously Christian ethics requires that we strive in our daily walk to make Christ our number one priority.


See, for example, (Gehrz and Pattie 2017).


Boorstin, Daniel J. 1962. The Image; or, What Happened to the American Dream. New York: Atheneum.

Gehrz, Christopher  and Mark Pattie III. 2017. The Pietist Option: Hope for the Renewal of Christianity. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.

Wells, David. 1998. Losing Out Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.


Also see:

Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/2018_Character

Continue Reading

Bell: Sharp Characters Spirit Dialogue

James Scott Bell: How to Write Dazzling DialogueBell: Sharp Characters Spirit Dialogue

James Scott Bell.[1] 2014. How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

What dazzles editors? Journeying from nonfiction to fiction writing, I have had to learn new things. Where nonfiction authors write articles, reviews, and reflections, fiction authors focus on writing scenes. While nonfiction authors focus on analysis and description fiction authors focus on plot, character, and dialogue. When I stumbled across James Scott Bell’s How To Write Dazzling Dialogue, I knew that I had to learn how to dazzle.


Bell starts by comparing three manuscripts. The first begins with description. The second begins with descriptive dialog. The third begins with dialog between two people in conflict. Which has the most rapid pace? Which is most likely to get noticed by an agent? Bell describes the third manuscript as “crisp and tense”. It is taken from Michael Connelly’s The Last Coyote (9).

Dialogue Defined

Bell defines dialogue citing John Howard Lawson’s Theory and Technique of Playwriting who described dialogue as “compression and extension of action.” He goes on to say that: “Every word, every phrase that comes out of a character’s mouth is uttered because the character hopes it will further a purpose.” In other words, every character has an agenda. (12) Thus, dazzling dialogue arises from the intersection of two characters’ agendas in opposition. (13)

 Five Functions of Dialogue

The role of compression is important. Bell writes: “Dialogue is not real-life speech. It is stylized speech for which the author, through the characters, has a purpose.” (16) Focusing on the character’s agenda, the dialogue must cut to the chase and reveal underlying conflict, even if in good natured banter. (17) Bell sees five functions of dialogue:

  1. Reveal story information
  2. Reveal character
  3. Set the tone
  4. Set the scene
  5. Reveal theme (22).

In weaving a story, Bell advises the author to act first, explain later and to hide story information (exposition) within confrontation to avoid appearing too preachy. (25) How people talk reveals their character in terms of education, social position, regional background, and peer groups (35-36). Tone is revealed in how characters talk to each other (36). The scene is described through how characters react to it and to each other (37). Theme can be revealed without being preachy by embedding it in the dialogue. (38)

Practicing Dialogue

Bell suggests that the best way to learn to write dialogue is to practice acting out or writing out different roles with a voice journal. He writes:

“How do I know what a character’s voice sounds like? I prompt them with questions and then let them talk. I do this fast, without thinking about it much. What I’m waiting for is the moment when the character starts talking to me in a voice I did not plan.” (40-41)

He advises writers to take time in writing these journals out and reading them out loud (41-42). Another way to practice dialogue is to convert movie scripts into scenes in narrative form. (42). His example is taken from Cool Hand Luke, a film starring Paul Newman (1967), one of my favorite movies.[2] Bell also suggests trying improvisation. (45)

Increasing Tension

Dialogue can also benefit from new agendas, arguments, barriers, and addition of fear. (61) Bell recommends that characters who simply act out who they are in dialogue makes for natural conflict that simply flows out of their personalities.

The classic film that Bell returns to over and over is Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (28-30). In the film, Humphrey Bogart plays a closed mouth private detective, Sam Spade, who interacts with talkative socialites, manipulative millionaires, and sleazy women who have trouble telling the truth. Conflicting agendas break out everywhere because the characters differ deeply from one another. This is what Bell refers to as orchestration because well-formed characters ooze conflict. (62)

Arguments can be playful or serious. Barriers can be cultural—think of someone that thinks so differently from you that communication is difficult—or situational. Have you ever had a job interview where the interviewer was constantly interrupted with phone calls or an assistant breaking in? Sometimes barriers to communication can be downright funny or simply discouraging.


James Scott Bell’s How to Write Dazzling Dialogue is a fascinating read for authors needing tips on how to improve dialogue and follow convention in writing it. Bell writes thrillers, teaches writing, and works as a screenwriter in Los Angeles. His advice on dialogue runs deep.


[1] www.JamesScottBell.com. @JamesScottBell

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cool_Hand_Luke.


Connelly, Michael. 2003. The Last Coyote. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Lawson, John Howard. 1936. Theory and Technique of Playwriting. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.


Also see:

Bell: How to Plot a Good Novel 

Karr Voices Memoir Clearly 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2wVZtbb

Continue Reading

Brooks Structures Story, Part 1

Larry Brooks, Story EngineeringBrooks Structures Story, Part 1

Larry Brooks. 2011. Story Engineer: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books. (Goto Part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In early July as I responded to my editor’s comments on my memoir, a disturbing thought came to mind. I have just written a novel with 98 scenes (from the perspective of a fiction writer) and I have no idea of how properly to write a scene. I scrambled that afternoon to find a writing book to rectify my problem. This search led me to Larry Brook’s Story Engineering.


Of course, Brooks writes about more than how to compose a good scene. He cites his purpose in publishing another book on writing as:

“Interestingly, there are many books on screenwriting that do what most novel-writing books don’t—they show us what to write, when to write it, what follows what, what should go where, and why, and tell us the criteria for ensuring that our creative choices are effective ones. In other words, how to get it done.” (4)

This statement snagged my interest. Yes—I know what the hero’s journey is; no—I am clueless as to how to compose one. My memoir is an example of the hero’s journey, but how to write scenes that use the template effectively is not obvious, having never done it before.

Who is Larry Brooks?

Larry Brooks is the author of three books on writing fiction and has six critically-acclaimed thrillers, including Darkness Bound, Bait and Switch, Deadly Faux, and The Seventh Thunder. He grew up in Portland, Oregon, was educated at Portland State University, pitched [baseballs] for the Texas Rangers, and spent seventeen years in corporate marketing and training business. Brooks lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, and travels frequently as a speaker and workshop teacher at writing conferences.[1]

Outline of Book

Brooks’ six core competencies are: concept, character, theme, structure, scene execution, and writing voice. He structures his book in eight parts around these six competencies plus an introduction (why we care) and conclusion (putting it together). These eight parts divide into fifty chapters with the twenty-two of the fifty chapters devoted to story structure—the hero’s journey. Let me turn to these competencies.


A concept is a fresh look at an old idea. Brooks advises that a concept should ask a question where the answer to the question is your story. He writes: “story about ballet dancers is not a concept.” But, “what if a ballet dancer loses her leg at the knee but perseveres against great prejudice to become a professional dancer?” (31).

Notice the “what if” in this last statement. Drilling down into your concept with additional what if questions can help expand on your story and provide the fodder for twists and turns along the way (42). For example, what if your handicapped ballet dancer is also African America, a war heroine, child-prodigy mathematician, the daughter of the president, or lived in the nineteenth century? The possibilities are endless.


Brooks looks at the character through the eyes of the plot. He writes: “Character is the catalyst that empowers everything else in your story.” (56) Obviously, in order for a character to be larger than life, this character must be alive, at least on the page. Aspects of character that he notes are: surface affections and personality, backstory, character arc, inner demons and conflicts, worldview, goals and motivations, and decisions, actions, and behaviors (54-55).

Brooks’ insight into character comes in defining its three dimensions: outward appearance, the reason for behaviors, and inner person (64-65). Economists talk about firms in terms of their structure, conduct, and performance, which is essentially the same set of distinctions in different words. These dimensions interface with the plot because outward appearance and behaviors are observed with or without conflict. The conflict in the story, which drives the plot, is the only way, however, that you can reveal the inner person (71). Here is Brooks’ catalyst at work.

An important component of character, known as the character arc, displays “what the character does in the first part of the story probably won’t be the same flavor of action or decision that will manifest in the last part.” (93) The interplay with plot comes when an external obstacle in the hero’s quest cannot be eliminated until the hero deals with his own internal obstacles (94). The hero’s struggle with these two conflicts is an important subplot, according to Brooks (101).


Brooks explains that “Theme is the relevance of your story to life.” (118) Your story is essentially a case study illustrating a greater truth.  In the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), for example, Jesus illustrates how we should treat our neighbors. The theme is neighborly love and the story illustrates this love. Theme has a sacramental characteristic in the sense that a sacrament is outward sign with an inward meaning. Developing a theme requires careful preparation of context.

Scene Execution

A scene is a dramatic scenario in one time and place that moves the plot (or character) along. It is a transition with a beginning, middle, and ending (229-230). Interestingly, Brooks sees scenes that illustrate character being the primary focus of literary fiction and scenes that move the plot along being the primary focus of commercial fiction (241). Obviously, if the purpose of a scene is motion towards an objective (either character or plot), the context of the scene in the wider story must be known in advance (238-239). For the sake of clarity, a scene should only make a single point. Changes in time or place motivate writing of a new scene (233).

Writing Voice

Writing voice is the attitude that you display as you write. Brooks makes the point that your attitude should be professional, clean, crisp, natural, efficient (247-248). It is a bit like a writer’s personal hygiene—it either goes without notice or it stinks up the place. It is most noticeable in dialogue, in part, because dialogue tends to mark your social position and flexibility.

Brooks notes that “Dialogue is also specific to variables such as age, culture, geography, relationships, and agenda.” (250) Like speech itself, it is hard to fake, prompting Brooks’ watch-phrase: “less is more.” (247)

Because Brooks spills most of his ink on story structure (the hero’s journey), in part 2 of this review will focus on structure.


Larry Brooks’ Story Engineer is an award-winning book on the craft of writing story that draws on writing both novels and screen plays. Brooks reads easily and he uses examples from numerous well-known books and films. The target audience is authors serious about improving their craft.

[1] https://killzoneblog.com/about-tkz-and-our-authors. http://storyfix.com/about. @StoryFix.


Also see:

Warren Writes to Grow Characters 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2vfisNa

Continue Reading

Kress Writes Fiction with Logic and Flair

kress_review_02092017Nancy Kress. 2005. Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint.  Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the dividing lines between fiction and nonfiction writing shows itself in the indirect way that fiction writers express themselves, “showing” rather than “telling” the reader. Showing a characteristic or emotion subtly transforms the reader from an observer into a participant in the story. Depending on whose head the reader occupies, we arrive at the “point of view” (POV) that the author wants to use, something that nonfiction writers may treat casually or simply ignore. In her book, Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint, Nancy Kress offers us a guide to this subtly in three parts—character, emotion, and point of view.

Character. Kress sees character defining fiction because character differences shape plots, settings, and writing styles, even if the influence cuts both ways (2-3). These subtle influences require that the writer adopt different perspectives, that of the writer, the character, the reader, and the critic, but at different times (3-4, 221). She sees four sources for interesting characters: “yourself, real people you know, real people you hear about, and pure imagination.” (5)

An important aspect of character is whether they are “stayers” or “changers”. Kress writes: “Changers are characters who alter in significant ways as a result of the events of your story.” By contrast, stayers may be heroes, like James Bond, who remain remarkably unflappable over time and always get the villain or may be tragically flawed and “come to grief because of their blindness.” (10) Likewise, motivations that characters exhibit may either be unchanging or change over the course of the story. Thus, four basic character/plot patterns emerge from the interaction of personality and motivation:

  1. Personality stable, motivation stable;
  2. Personality stable, motivation changes;
  3. Personality changes, motivation stable; and
  4. Personality changes, motivation changes (67).

The key to any change in personality or motivation is to make it believable.

Emotion. Kress sees emotion derived “from two other critical concepts: motivation and backstory” where “motivation means that someone wants something” (35-36) and backstory explains why. The backstory can be given in: brief detail, an inserted paragraph, a flashback or an expository dump (39). Motivation gets interesting when a character has conflicting or mixed motivations that help define character (52-54).

Expressing emotion is tricky because characters differ in ethnicity, family background, region, gender, education, and circumstances (106-108). In view of these differences, writing dialogue is tricky—we do not speak the same and we reveal emotions to just anyone. Because many people are uptight about expressing emotion, Kress cites several occasions that might allow emotional dialogue to proceed, like keeping a journal, writing a letter, talking to a pet, therapist, or priest (114-115).  Another way to open up emotions is to infer them through the use of metaphors and symbols (120-121, 124).

In her inventory of emotions, Kress highlight frustration as important in plot development and authenticity in character development. Kress writes:

“Because frustration is such an important emotion in fiction, how well you portray it can make the difference between characters that seem real and those that seem cardboard.” (150)

Kress sees: “four modes of conveying emotion: action, dialogue, bodily sensations, and character’s thoughts” (46) which implies that frustration must too be displayed in various modes.

Point of View. Because we are only really privy to our own emotions, fiction fascinates us because we get to experience someone else’s (158) and writers get to choose both which character’s POV is highlighted and how much story time it gets. Kress suggests these criteria in choosing a POV character:

  • “Who will be hurt by the action? . . .
  • Who can be present at the climax? . . .
  • Who gets most of the good scenes? . . .
  • What will provide an interesting outlook on the story? . . .
  • Whose head are you most interested in inhabiting during this story?” (160-161)

After choosing a POV character, the next step is to decide how the author will appear in the narration—“first person, third person, omniscient, or (rarely) the ‘novelty’ points of view: second, plural first, plural third, and epistolary.” (163)

While most of these POVs are well known, in the case of the third person, which is most common, Kress further delves into the question of distance—close third, medium-distance third, and distant third—which deals with the level of intimacy that the author presumes. (185) Close third allows the author to read the character’s thoughts, almost like first person, while distant third views the character as external and more formal. (188) Middle-distance third remains somewhere inbetween. The clincher is that the author can move between these three categories, although too much jumping around is confusing. (190) Kress suggests sticking with one perspective per scene. (194-195)

Nancy Kress is a writing instructor with several writing books[1] and a novelist, specializing in science fiction and fantasy. Awards that her books have won include:

“six Nebulas (for ‘Out of All Them Bright Stars,’ ‘Beggars in Spain,’ ‘The Flowers of Aulit Prison,’ ‘Fountain of Age,’ ‘After the Fall, Before the Fall, and During the Fall,’ and ‘Yesterday’s Kin’), two Hugos (for ‘Beggars in Spain’ and ‘The Erdmann Nexus’), a Sturgeon (for ‘The Flowers of Aulit Prison’), and a John W. Campbell Memorial Award (for PROBABILITY SPACE).” [2]

Her most recent degrees are from the State University of New York at Brockport, where she had earned an M.S. in education (1977) and an M.A. in English (1979).

Nancy Kress’ book, Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint, is a how-to-book for fiction writers. Nonfiction writers, like myself, can also benefit both from becoming better informed about descriptive writing and from learning to write tighter stories, which appear in most nonfiction writing. Kress’ writing is accessible, a joy to read, and displays a wonderful knowledge of classical fiction writing.


Kress, Nancy. 2004. Dynamic Characters. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.

Kress, Nancy. 2011. Beginnings, Middles, and Ends. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.

[1] Other than this book, she has written Dynamic Characters (2004) and Beginnings, Middles, and Ends (2011).

[2] http://NancyKress.com.

Continue Reading

Stephen King Lives and Writes Through Situations

stephen_king_review_01112017Stephen King. 2010. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

My primary writing project during the past year has been to write a memoir. Being new to the genre, I started by publishing my father’s memoir, enrolled in an online writing course, read numerous writing books, and reviewed a few good memoirs. Stephen King’s[1] book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, touches on each of these activities.

The breadth of this memoir comes as a surprise—what is a memoir of a craft anyway? King divides his memoir into several parts, including:

  • C.V. (17-101).
  • What Writing Is (103-137).
  • On Writing (141-249).
  • On Living: A Postscript (253-270).
  • And Furthermore, Part I: Door Shut, Door Open (271-284).
  • And Furthermore, Part II: A Booklike (285-288).
  • Further to Furthermore, Part III (289-291).

 His chapters are preceded by three forewords and, in spite of its length, this memoir reads quickly—but not too quickly. Still, the breadth of this work comes from the way that King weaves his life and his craft together—a visitor to the King house might be advised to forbear exploring the closets! What the heck; let’s explore.

King is an author and a household name. He has written numerous (35+) books, many of which have also appeared in film. As an example, his breakout work, Carrie, sold first as a paperback novel (1973) and was released three years later as a horror film.[2]

Interestingly, Tabitha, King’s wife, rescued an early manuscript of Carrie from the trash, as King recalls:

“I had four problems with what I’d written. First, … the story didn’t move me emotionally. Second, … I didn’t much like the lead character. Carrie White seemed thick and passive, a ready-made victim. … Third, … [I] was not feeling at home with either the surroundings or my all-girl cast of supporting characters. … Fourth, … the story wouldn’t pay unless it was pretty long. … I couldn’t see wasting two weeks, maybe even a month, creating a novella I didn’t like and wouldn’t be able to sell. So I threw it away.” (76-77)

But, confronted with his Ideal Reader (Tabitha) telling him that this manuscript had promise, King went back and gave Carrie his best shot.

This notion of an Ideal Reader is interesting. King writes for his wife, Tabitha, who happens also to be an author, which seems most fortunate because she can articulate her opinions to King in actionable language.[3] King explains:

“Call that one person you write for Ideal Reader. He or she is going to be in your writing room all the time: in the flesh once you open the door and let the world back in to shine on the bubble of your dream, in spirit during the sometimes troubling and often exhilarating days of the first draft, when the door is closed.” (219)

King sees the Ideal Reader as particularly helpful in judging story pace—“the speed at which your narrative unfolds”—and the details to include in your backstory—“all the stuff that happened before your tale began but which has an impact on the front story” (220-223).

Part of the back story in King’s memoir evolves into front story in his postscript where he describes in detail his experience of being run over by a Dodge van in June of 1999, while walking down a country road in rural Maine (253-255). This story of his near-death experience might have been just an interesting aside, except for the fact that King had motivational problems in finishing this memoir back in that summer (265). I suspect that his life story suddenly became a slightly higher priority, having been thrown 14 feet in the air (259) and improbably lived through the experience.[4]

Before I wrap up this review, let me make one more observation. King has an interesting view of plot. He describes plot as too big a hammer (a jackhammer) for normal use by fiction author and he prefers to motivate his characters through stressful situations (164). If you believe that we act out of our identities, then no two characters will respond the same way to a given tricky situation. How a story evolves out of a situation is therefore interesting and potentially surprising because people discover the character in themselves as they are challenged by life’s situations—we are ultimately strangers to ourselves; that is, until we are not. The thrill in the thriller is therefore hard to duplicate with a plot-line where the author already knows where the story will go and how it will get there—it is better to scrape the plot and discover the character the same way that a reader might. Therefore, King looks for strong situations and explores interesting what-if scenarios to challenge his characters and writes intuitively about how they respond (169).

Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, is an interesting and helpful book for wannabe and experienced authors both, because he explores both writing and the writing life. Film buffs might also read this book to garner the backstory on his films, many of which are now cult classics. Personally, I read this book mostly because I like to read and love to write—perhaps, you do too.

[1] http://StephenKing.com.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrie_(1976_film).

[3] My wife teaches mathematics and chemistry, seldom reading anything outside her field so my Ideal Reader is probably my mom who has trouble explaining her likes and dislikes.

[4] If it had been me, the improbability might have instigated a new interest in inspirational fiction, rather than memoir, in part, because it is more of a baby step away from other fiction and towards an explanation for why God was not through with me yet.

Continue Reading

Warren Writes to Grow Characters


Warren Writes to Grow Characters

Susan May Warren.[1] 2016. The Story Equation. Minneapolis: My Book Therapy.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

What makes the character in a novel come to life? Why do some readers behave like crack addicts with lives consumed in reading? Why do some writers obsess with feeding this addiction, like wannabe drug pushers, and, in the process, finding fame and fortune? While these groups encompass a lot of people, my own interest is more personal—as I write my own memoir, how am I to understand my own character development? These questions brought me to focus on Susan Warren’s book, The Story Equation.


Warren writes:

“How well your readers connect with and care about this character determines the success of a story. In other words, if they’re emotionally gone on the journey with the character, suffered with and experienced the joys and triumphs of the character, as well as learned the lessons and truths, only then have you, the author, done your job.” (10)

She calls her method for accomplishing and maintaining this connection the Story Equation (13), which she describes as a multi-tier recipe (33-34). Her emphasis on the inner journey rather than the outer journey of her characters (plot) helps place her method in the genre of inspirational fiction.

Outline of Technique

In broad strokes, Warren sees a story having four acts, each with its own emotional purpose, which she describes as a character change journey (16).[2]

Act 1

In act 1, the author introduces the main character who confronts an inciting incident. She writes: “your key job is to help readers identify with the character, feel his journey, and triumph with him” (19). The character’s biography should be revealed through stories that illustrate character but do not slow the action (20-21). The inciting incident challenges the character both to step out of his normal routine and to grow out of the previous mindset.

Act 2

In act 2, our character meets obstacles that must be overcome; otherwise, the story dies as our hero melts before the challenge. Warren calls the motivation to rise and overcome the obstacles a noble quest (23).

Act 3

In act 3, our character must fight to overcome both internal and external obstacles (25). Warren writes:

“at that moment we are forced to confront the lies we believe, our broken behaviors (flaws), and our fears. This is called the Black Moment Effect … [and] we see the truth.” (26)

This Black Moment Effect is critical in inspirational plot development because the character must see that to triumph, he must sacrifice to overcome the lie that has held him back—the person he was must die in order for him to move forward and both become a new person and triumph against his obstacles (27).

Act 4

In act 4, we witness the character’s triumph. To show change, a character must “make a Grand Gesture, sacrifice something, engage in a Final Battle” (28). Because changes remain difficult, it can be no less complicated or dramatic for our characters. The whole point of an inspirational novel, however, is to show that change is, in fact, possible but it cannot happen without sacrifice (27).

Multiple Passes Through Text

In case you thought writing inspirational fiction was easy and straightforward, Warren makes two more passes through these four acts. First, the focus is on the internal journey; second, the focus shifts to the external story (plot) structure; third, the focus shifts to how the internal and the external story relate to one another. Warren refers to this second pass as the Story Equation, which she defines with an acronym (LINDY HOP);[3] she refers third pass as the character change journey. Clearly, it would take a small book to explain her approach adequately, even in a review.

Susan May Warren grew up in Wayzata, Minnesota, studied Mass Communications at the University of Minnesota,[4] and spent eight years working in missions in Siberia, Russia. She is the author of numerous books[5] and works as a writing coach. She is also a great speaker and very approachable person.[6]


Susan May Warren’s The Story Equation is an intriguing book—easy to read, but worthy of deep reflection. I found myself adding new chapters to my memoir, as I reflected on my own life’s journey. Her insights into the human condition are profound, leaving me curious to read more of her work. She is also readable, illustrating points on character development with movie examples, such the internal life of Benjamin Martin from the film, The Patriot.[7]


[1] http://www.SusanMayWarren.com, www.MyBookTherapy.com, and www.LearnHowtoWriteaNovel.com.

[2] Because stories are typically said to have three acts, she divides act 2 into two parts: 2A and 2B. For simplicity’s sake, I stick with four acts in this review.

[3] LINDY HOP = Life, Inciting incident, Noble quest, Disappointments, Y in the road, Help, Overhaul, and Perfect ending.

[4] As an undergraduate at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, the graduate school at University of Minnesota tried to recruit me at one point but I told them that I had enough cold weather in Ames! Later I regretted turning them down, because it was a great school.

[5] For a list of books, either check with Amazon.com or visit her official website, cited earlier.

[6] I met Susan at a conference sponsored by the American Christian Fiction Writers fellowship in Woodbridge, Virginia on October 22, 2016.

[7] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0187393/videoplayer/vi100139289?ref_=tt_ov_vi

Continue Reading

Covey Teaches Good Habits

Covey_review_08152016Stephen R. Covey.[1] 1989. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic. New York: Simon and Schuster; Fireside Book.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

So much of the time, we want God to solve our problems and to clean up our messes that we should be working on ourselves. Working as a chaplain intern in the emergency department, I started to notice that about half the patients that I saw daily came in complaining of medical problems arising from poor lifestyle choices—addictions, risky sexual practices, obesity related illnesses, and stress related illnesses. When I mentioned my observation to the head surgeon, he corrected me—it was not half the patients, it was three-quarters of them. If we perform so poorly in taking care of our physical bodies, what does that say about our performance in our relationships and careers?  (And our need for God…)

In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey presents: “a holistic, integrated approach to personal and interpersonal effectiveness.” (9) Effectiveness here means that the biblical teaching is boiled down into principles for living and working effectively, without necessarily understanding how those principles came to be. Since God is sovereign over the whole universe, the principles of the universe are, of course, also his.  In this case, Covey is a Harvard MBA with a doctorate from Brigham Young University (a Mormon school) where, at the time of publication, was also a faculty member in the Marriott School of Management.

Covey starts with a lengthy introduction where he distinguishes personality from character, writing:

“In stark contrast, almost all of the literature [on how to be successful in life and career] in the first 150 years or so focused on what could be called the Character Ethic as the foundation of success—things like integrity, humility, fidelity, temperance, courage, justice, patience, industry, simplicity, modesty, and the Golden Rule….

But shortly after World War I the basic view of success shifted from the Character Ethic to what we might call the Personality Ethic. Success became more a function of personality, of public image, of attitudes, and behaviors, skills, and techniques, that lubricate the processes of human interaction.” (18-19)

Covey then goes on to say that the elements of the Personality Ethic are certainly important, they are also second traits; the elements of the Character Ethic, by contrast, are primary traits (21-23). Being primary means that they not only affect our habits profoundly, they also affect our very perception of the world—our worldview or, more importantly, the lens that we use to interpret the things we see and experience (24-31). “Being is seeing” he says (32) His seven habits therefore focus on these primary traits.  Covey summarizes saying:

“The Character Ethic is based on the fundamental idea that there are principles that govern human effectiveness—natural laws in the human dimension that are just as real, just as unchanging and unarguably ‘there’ as laws such as gravity are in the physical world.” (32)

To make his point, Covey tells the story of a confrontation on a foggy day between an arrogant battleship captain and a lighthouse attendant over who would change course. Who do you suppose ended up changing course? Sometimes, knowing the difference between objective and subjective reality is a matter of life and death, and arrogance is not an option—to be effective we must be willing to start by reforming ourselves and listening to those around us. (33, 37, 42)

Covey defines:

“a habit as the intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire. Knowledge is a theoretical paradigm, the what to do and the why. Skill is the how to do. And desire is the motivation, the want to do. In order to make something a habit in our lives, we have to have all three.” (47)

Covey drives his point home with a Venn diagram showing the intersection of three circles (knowledge, skill, and desire) with habits occupying the intersection of the three circles (48).

Covey does not see effective people working alone; rather, effective people involve the people around them in what he refers to as the maturity continuum, writing:

“On the maturity continuum, dependence is the paradigm of you—you take care of me; you come through for me; you didn’t come through; I blame you for the results.

Independence is the paradigm of I—I can do it; I am responsible; I am self-reliant; I can choose.

Interdependence is the paradigm of we—we can do it; we can cooperate; we can combine our talents and abilities and create something greater together.” (49)

While it is obvious that team-work is required in any large scale project, Covey makes an observation that is less obvious:

“Interdependence is choice only independent people can make. Dependent people cannot choose to become interdependent. They don’t have the character to do it; they don’t own enough of themselves.” (51)

Unable to control themselves, dependent people cannot perform well in teams; only independent people are free to join teams, not threatened by working harmoniously with others. Consequently, Covey sees the 7 habits of highly effective people including both individual character traits (independent people) and relational characteristics (teamly attitudes). Covey’s seven habits therefore are:

  1. “Be proactive.
  2. Begin with the end in mind.
  3. Put first things first.
  4. Think win/win.
  5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
  6. Synergize.
  7. Sharpen the saw.” (53)

Covey lays out his approach in part one of this book, which includes two sections. He then writes the heart of his books in chapters for each of the seven habits.  These chapters are preceded by acknowledgements and followed by several appendices and indices.

Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has educated a generation of business and church leaders on how to be effective in working within organizations. Early in my government career, I read this book and I spent much of the rest of my career reaping the benefits. It is hard to accurately access the fruit of Covey’s insights and his habits have each spawned books elaborating his habits, even if unknowingly. Read and study the book—both you and your colleagues will be glad that you did.

[1] https://www.StephenCovey.com.

Continue Reading