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.

Introduction

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.

Assessment

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.

Footnotes

[1] www.JamesScottBell.com. @JamesScottBell

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

References

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

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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.

Introduction

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.

Concept

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.

Character

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).

Theme

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.

Assessment

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

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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.

References

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.

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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.

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Warren Writes to Grow Characters

susan_may_warren_review_10282016

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.

Introduction

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]

Assessment

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]

Footnotes

[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

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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.

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Jesus Models Image Ethics

Life_in_Tension_web“So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord,
but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does,
that the Son does likewise.” (John 5:19 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Jesus loves image ethics.

Because we are created in the image of God, God is our model for ethical behavior. In Genesis we read:

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen. 1:27 ESV)

The pattern is simple—God does A, we do A; God does B, we do B. Jesus applies this pattern in the Lord’s Prayer several times. For example, we read:

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt. 6:10 ESV)

The phrase “on earth as it is in heaven” models this pattern. Also, we see:  “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matt. 6:12 ESV)

Here Jesus gets stuck and repeats himself, in case one is hard of hearing:

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt. 6:14-15 ESV)

In six simple verses (Matt. 6:10-15), Jesus repeats this pattern four times! Does a harden heart preclude one from salvation from sin? These verses certainly hold up that possibility.

An obvious application is to reflect all of God character traits:

“…The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” (Exod. 34:6 ESV)

If God is merciful, then we are merciful; if God is gracious, we are gracious…Notice how the fifth beatitude reverses this pattern:

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” (Matt. 5:7 ESV)

The inclusion of the fifth beatitude of mercy to the exclusion of God’s other character traits establishes mercy as God’s priority. Breaking the pattern through reversal also adds emphasis.

Do you want a blessing? Then, be a blessing! [1]

Simple. Clean. Convicting.

Jesus loves image ethics.

 

[1] One is reminded here of Abraham’s blessing: “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” (Gen. 12:2 ESV)

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Wells: Character and Personality Differ—We Should Care Why

Virtue_review_04302015David Wells. 1998.  Losing Our Virtue:  Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision. Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the most painful lessons that I learned as a parent was that I could not assume that what I taught my kids would be reinforced by lessons in church, school, and other forums, like multi-media. While some might say that I was simply naive, my role as a father providing for the family was distracting enough.  Many of my peers failed to keep up financially with their parents—even after sending their wife out to work—in the face of stagnating and falling family incomes [1].

Some of the costs of this fight in our generation to defend living standards have been increased divorce, stressed out parents, and a lack of consciousness on how to deal with it.  In this context, moral training mostly fell through the cracks because, like other forms of education, moral training requires  time, money,  effort, and good role models in the community.  Meanwhile, multimedia provided scores of really bad role models and the internet provided a haven for care and feeding of some rather dysfunctional youth subcultures [2].  It is accordingly not surprising in a social and economic sense that we have seen a rapid decline in morality during this generation.

In his book, Losing Our Virtue:  Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision, David Wells documents this decline in morality from a theological perspective.  Wells writes:

“In this engagement, I shall argue, that is now framing life in such a way that the most important part of self-understanding—that we are moral beings—has been removed from the equation.  That is the beguilingly simple thesis I shall be pursuing:  functionally, we not morally disengaged, adrift, and alienated; we are morally obliterated…In our schools…we shifted from teaching character formation to values clarification…Our children are not only more lawless in school…but are too often without any apparent moral consciousness regarding their actions.” (13)

In order to experience a decline in morality, one needs to articulate a standard for behavior.  Wells writes:

“For over two thousand years, moral conduct was discussed under the language of virtues.  First Plato and then Aristole talked about the cardinal, or foundational, virtues.  These were justice (or rectitude), wisdom, courage (or fortitude), and moderation (or self-control)…The importance of the classical view of the virtues was that moral conduct was seen to be the outcome of character, and it was considered entirely futile to divorce inward moral reality from its exercise in the society or community in which a person lived…The character of which we speak here is not simply the cultivation of natural virtue but the intensely conscious sense of living morally before God.” (14-16)

Wells provides a whirlwind review of the past 2,000 years of moral development.  However, most of the real change is very recent and revolves around the postmodern assault on the existence of objective truth.  If there is no one truth, then there can be no one set of virtues and no one ideal character type.  Wells observes that “postmodern critics oppose Christianity not because of its particulars, but simply because it claims to be true.” (19).

David F. Wells[3] is the Andrew Mutch Distinguished Professor of Historical and Systemic Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, MA and one of my own professors[4].  He writes Losing Our Virtues in 6 chapters proceeded by a preface and introduction and followed by a bibliography and index.  The 6 chapters are:

  1. A Tale of Two Spiritualties,
  2. The Playground of Desire,
  3. On Saving Ourselves,
  4. The Bonfire of the Self,
  5. Contradictions, and
  6. Faith of the Ages (viii-ix).

Wells is author of a number of books, including: No Place for Truth (1994), God in the Wasteland (1995), and Above All Earthly Powers (2005).

An important insight that Wells offers is also one difficult to understand fully.  He writes:

“…I shall develop the argument that this difference [between classical morality and postmodern morality] has produced a shift in the way that the moral is experienced.  It is a shift from guilt in the classical stream to shame in the postmodern.  However, it is shame in a uniquely contemporary way. It is not shame of being exposed before others because our individualism gives us permission to do whatever we like and whatever gratifies us provided that it…is legal.  There is, as a result, very little of which people are ashamed should they get caught or be exposed.  It is, rather, the shame of being naked within one’s self. It is shame experienced as inner emptiness, deprivation, loss, and disorientation.  It is shame that is far more psychological in nature than moral.” (34-35)

Wells sees guilt as “normally the emotional response to our violation of a moral norm” and shame is “our disappointment with ourselves that we are not other than what we are” (130).  Citing Dick Keyes, Wells writes:

“our inability to deal with shame and guilt right at the heart of our problems in identity. Identity is a matter of knowing who we are, both as human beings and as individuals, and through this understanding arriving at some internal cohesion and coherence.” (131)

If we do not know who we are, then we cannot say who we are not.  The identity problem accordingly spills over into our actions through an obvious lack of boundaries—as people do what feels good without guidance, an incredible number of crimes (abuse, corruption, drug use, mass murder…) and perversions (pedophilia, suicide, gender confusion…) come into view at rates unprecedented in recent history.  This is not just a measurement problem [5].  Historically, our morality lined us up with God’s immutable (unchanging) character—but if we cannot line such things up internally today, then how is it possible to act coherently in the external world? [6]  And what exactly does the church itself teach about morality today?

When I think about David Well’s Losing Our Virtue, I remember his distinction between character (internally defined and evidenced) and personality (externally defined and evidenced; 96-105)—television shows today mostly ignore the former and extol the latter.  Knowing the difference is one reason why David Well’s Losing Our Virtue is a book deserving of a deep read.

 

[1] Rather than upward mobility, this generation has mostly faced downward mobility both financially and socially.

[2]  For example, the goth subculture is probably the best known (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goth_subculture).   The emo subculture glories suicide ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emo).  For a list of subcultures in the United States, see: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_subcultures).

[3] http://bit.ly/1DF8i0q

[4] My pastor and I are both students of Dr. Wells, though about 30 years removed. I will always remember Dr. Wells for gently disavowing me of the notion that theology begins and ends with the double love command (Matt 22: 36-40).

[5] Before the advent of co-educational dormitories on university campuses, for example, women and men did not live in the same building and access was tightly restricted.  The ability to misbehave in any way was much less likely.  The number of date rapes was accordingly not substantially underestimated in those years—it was variance around a much lower base.  The rise in the number of rapes is accordingly due to cultural changes, not measurement error.

[6] Making things worse, postmoderns do not believe in one objective truth.  In effect, they deny that a single line up with God is even possible.  Therefore, morality is inconsistent with their worldview.

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Jesus: Grief Builds Character, Defines Identity

Life_in_Tension_web“Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me. And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26:38-39 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The emotional tension that we feel within ourselves when we mourn forces us to make a decision. Do we turn inward leaning into our pain or do we honor the commitment that brought us to this point? Because of this decision, mourning is an emotion that defines who we are. Standing under the shadow of the cross at Gethsemane, Jesus had to decide whether to be obedient to the will of God and proceed to the cross or to seek another future. The same decision faces us as Christians. Our character is defined by the choices we make and the pains we bear because of them [1]. It is interesting that grief is the only emotion that appears on the list of Beatitudes—why not joy or love?

Our grief arises out of the loss of the things that are important to us. In writing about the second Beatitude, Billy Graham (1955, 20-26) identified five objects of mourning:

  1. Inadequacy—before you can grow strong, you must recognize your own weakness;
  2. Repentance—before you can ask for repentance, you must recognize your sin;
  3. Love—our compassion for the suffering of our brothers and sisters takes the form of mourning and measures our love of God;
  4. Soul travail—groaning for the salvation of the lost around us; and
  5. Bereavement—mourning over those that have passed away.

Mitchell and Anderson (1983, 36-45) widen this list to identify six major types of loss, including:

1. Material loss;
2. Relationship loss;
3. Intra-psychic loss—loss of a dream;
4. Functional loss—including loss of autonomy;
5. Role loss—like retirement; and
6. Systemic loss—like departure from your family of origin [2].

What is surprising about this list is that each loss must be separately grieved. Elderly people find themselves experiencing many of these losses and grieving them surrounded by loved ones who may be completely unaware. But we all face losses in our daily lives that challenge the assumptions that we live by. With each of these events, we find ourselves in a “Gethsemane moment”. Do we surrender ourselves leaning into our pain or do we surrender our griefs at the foot of the cross and stay the course as disciples of Christ?

My grandfather provided an important lesson to me on the nature of love and grief. My grandmother was afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease for about ten years before she died. Alzheimer’s disease had taken her mother before her and many of her siblings. My grandfather cared for her until the end in spite of the fact that he was himself towards the end over one hundred years old. In his grieving over her slow departure, he expressed his love. When I think of him now, I always remember what he did.

Saint Francis of Assisi said it most appropriately:

Lord, grant that I may seek rather
To comfort than to be comforted,
To understand than to be understood,
To love than to be loved;
For it is by giving that one receives,
It is by self-forgetting that one finds,
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven,
It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life (Graham 1955, 24).

Our character is defined by the choices we make and the pains we bear.

 

[1] “Through the CALL of Jesus men become individuals. Whilly-nilly, they are compelled to decide, and that decision can only be made by themselves.” (Bonhoeffer 1995, 94)

[2] Mitchell and Anderson (1983, 46-50, 51) then go on to identify 5 attributes of those losses: 1. Avoidable or unavoidable, 2. Temporary or permanent, 3. Actual or imagined, 4. Anticipated or unanticipated, and 5. Leaving or being left. Surprisingly, they observe that: Growing up and leaving home involves…every form of loss but functional. It is surprising because we often take the process of growing up for granted—consequently when problems arise as in the case of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) we are caught unaware and unprepared.

REFERENCES

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1995. The Cost of Discipleship (Orig. pub. 1937). New York: Simon and Schuster.

Graham, Billy. 1955. The Secret of Happiness. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc.

Mitchell, Kenneth R. and Herbert Anderson. 1983. All Our Losses; All Our Griefs: Resources for Pastoral Care. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Nouwen, Henri J.M. 2010. Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (Orig pub 1972). New York: Image Doubleday.

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