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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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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