Brooks Structures Story, Part 2

Larry Brooks, Story EngineeringBrooks Structures Story, Part 2

Larry Brooks. 2011. Story Engineer: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books. (Goto Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In his book, Story Engineer, Larry Brooks focuses on six core competencies which must be mastered to become a professional writer. Those competencies are concept, character, theme, scene execution, writing voice, and structure (23). In part one of this review, I gave an overview of the book and discussed the first five of these competencies. Here in part two, I will concentrate the last of these competencies, story structure, where Brooks focuses the most attention and reinforces with helpful exploration of milestones, how to work with an outline, and other details.

Introduction

In Brooks’ thinking:

“Story structure is the sequence of your scenes that result in a story well told. Story architecture is the empowerment of those scenes through compelling characterizations, powerful thematic intentions, a fresh and intriguing conceptual engine, and a writing voice that brings it all to life with personality and energy.” (138)

He divides his stories into four parts separated by milestones that drive the plot.

Four-Part Story

Brooks writes:

“The mission of Part 1 is to set up the plot by creating stakes, backstory, and character empathy, while perhaps foreshadowing the forthcoming conflict. Basically, it’s to introduce the hero and show us what he has going on in his life…not for the remainder of the story, but before the arrival of the main antagonistic force (the primary conflict of the story) at the First Plot Point.” (147)

Milestones Separate the Parts

He sees part one as 20-25 being percent of the story and it ends abruptly with the First Plot Point. Part 1 Begins in Peace Ends with Conflict. Part 2 begins with a non-heroic response to this conflict (151). After the midpoint of the story, part 3 shows our hero going on the attack, but ineffectively (155). After information provided in the Second Plot Point, part 4 begins with our hero becoming equipped and emerging as a real hero (156). Brooks summarizes these transitions as the hero starting out an orphan, becoming a wanderer, growing into a warrior, and emerging as a martyr (157).

Brooks writes:

“Milestones are points in your story where new information enters the narrative and changes the direction, tension, and stakes. These milestones appear in the same approximate place, separating the four parts of the story.” (158)

He sees about eighty percent of your story focusing on these milestones, which makes understanding them critical to the structure of the story (159).

Milestones Defined

Brooks cites these milestones: opening scene, hooking moment, inciting incident, First Plot Point, First Pinch Point, Midpoint, Second Pinch Point, Second Plot Point, and resolution scene. He observes:

“If you allow three (or more) additional scenes that setup and surround these milestone moments, that’s at least thirty to forty scenes. Or about two-thirds of your entire story.” (160)

Given the importance of these milestones, virtually everything else in the story focuses on connecting to the next milestone, which makes understanding the story structure important in planning and executing your writing (161). Brooks makes this point repeatedly in his book, distinguishing writers who plan from organic writers who profess not to. Convincing writers to plan their stories is an important theme in this book.

First Plot Point

The First Plot Point introduces conflict into the story. Often the external conflict cannot be resolved until the hero’s inner conflict is dealt with. This is one reason the hero’s response in part 2 remains lame and incomplete. This inner conflict provides a starting point for the character arc of the story where the hero grows into someone much stronger than we see introduced in part 1 (93).

Pinch Point

A Pinch Point is a reminder of the nature and implications of an antagonistic force, unfiltered by the hero’s experience (200), which basically suggests that the hero is not making it all up. In some stories, the mental state of the hero may be questioned, because the response may seem disproportionate to observes not familiar with First Plot Point. The Pinch Point makes it clear either to the reader or the hero that the conflict is real.

Midpoint

The Midpoint comes at halfway through the story and occurs when the hero gains important information about the conflict that is being faced. The information is important enough that the hero ceases to be a wanderer and transitions to becoming a warrior.

Second Plot Point

At the Second Plot comes about three-quarters of the way through the story when the hero gains information critical to advancing on the attack. After this point, the hero is heroic and needs no more new insights, advancing from warrior to martyr, if necessary. The story advances into part 4 where the conflict is ultimately resolved (204-205).

Resolution Scene

In the resolution scene, Brooks writes:

[For part 4] “There is no blueprint for it…[and only one rule] no new expositional information may enter the story after the Second Plot Point that commences with it. If something appears in the final act, it must have been foreshadowed, referenced, or already in play. This includes characters—no newcomers allowed.” (210)

In part 4, our hero exhibits his personal growth and vanquishes his inner demons enough to resolve the basic story conflict (211).

Assessment

Larry Brooks’ Story Engineer is an award-winning book on writing craft 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.

 

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/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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Sacks: Why Stories Sell; Why We Care, Part 2

story_wars_review_11172016Jonah Sacks.[1] 2012. Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell—and Live—the Best Stories Will Rule the Future. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. (Got to Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

If you believe that modern media is irrelevant to your religious life, then ask yourself a couple of questions.  For example, why are most sermons about 20 minutes? and where do you go when you get upset? Twenty minute is about the amount of time remaining in a 30 minutes television show after the time devoted to advertising is subtracted out. If you go shopping when you are upset, then consider what your grandmother might have done—50 years ago it was common to go to a chapel and pray on stressful occasions.[2]  Today, if someone wanted to pray in a chapel, the door would likely be locked.

These changes did not happen overnight and they were not accidental.

In his book, Winning the Story Wars, Jonah Sacks talks about the contribution of dark art of marketing to cultural changes that we have seen. Borrowing from the work of Joseph Campbell, Sacks describes the purpose of myth is to help us grow up because we yearn for maturation (85). But mature adults (self-responsible, free agents) threaten marketers who typically prefer us to remain adolescents where we suspended in an immature state dwelling on emotions like greed, vanity, and insecurity. In this immature state, we are meant to feel inadequate and incomplete where consumption of product X, Y, Z can presumably make us complete again (86).

Inadequacy marketing directly assaults the spirit of most religious teaching, irrespective of theology, because most religions aid our maturation and help us to contribute to society. Hence, the phrase—the dark art of marketing—is truly dark.

Sacks writes:

“all story-based marketing campaigns contain an underlying moral of the story and supply a ritual that is suggested to react to that moral.” (89)

Inadequacy marketing accordingly has two basic steps. In step 1, the moral always begins with “You are not…and plays off of at least one negative emotion: greed…fear…lust.” (89) The purpose in step 1 is to create anxiety (93). In step 2, the ritual proposed is implicitly or explicitly to shop and buy a particular product—pictured as a magical experience.

One of the classic success stories of inadequacy marketing is the Listerine (an early mouth wash) ad campaign. In 1922, Listerine was sold as a “good surgical antiseptic” (91). Sales were pretty minimal. This ad campaign introduced a young woman, “Sad Edna”, who lacked attention, sex appeal, and was basically inadequate for reasons that no one would tell her—she had halitosis (bad breath) which was ruining her social life (the moral of the story; 142). That is, until she discovered Listerine (the magical solution). In this case, the Sad Edna campaign both raised the fear of inadequacy and successfully introduced Listerine as the hero of the story.

Sacks sees inadequacy marketing as pervasive and destructive because drives us to pursue culturally and environmentally destructive consumption. In place of inadequacy marketing, Sacks offers “empowerment advertising” which follows John Powers’ three basic principles (1875):  (1) Be interesting, (2) Tell the truth, and (3) Live the truth (or change so you can; 103-107). An example of an ad by John Powers for neckties read: “not as good as they look, but they’re good enough—25 cents.” The campaign was an instant success, in part, because people found an honest ad refreshing and the ties available sold promptly (105).

Sacks devotes the remainder of his book to outlying how to use empowerment advertising.

Two basic ingredients of empowerment advertising are Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” and Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”. Before I close, let me define what he means.

Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” starts with the proposition that people desire to obtain self-actualization as a life goal, this goal may not be obtained until more basic needs are met. Thus, he posits a pyramid of needs with the most basic needs at the bottom (physiological needs) and self-actualization at the top. Sacks pictures the five categories: physiological, safety, love and belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization (ordered from bottom to top; 130).  While inadequacy marketing focuses on the bottom of the pyramid, empowerment marketing focuses on the top.

Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” outlines the basic plot of many successful stories and films in a repeating circle: 1. The ordinary world, 2. A call to adventure, 3. Refusing the call, 4. Meeting a mentor, 5. Crossing the threshold, 6. Tests, allies, and Enemies, 7. Approaching the dragon’s den, 8. The ordeal, 9. Seizing the treasure, 10. The journey home, 11. Resurrection, 12. Return with the Treasure (148). While the hero’s journey may seem long and drawn out, numerous famous films follows this formula. For example, films that follow the hero’s journey include: Star Wars (1977), The Patriot (2000), and World War Z (2013).  So does the biblical story of Moses.

The hero’s journey is interesting in empowerment marketing because in order to succeed the hero has to grow at least enough to complete the journey—a type of self-actualization in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. For Sacks, the hero in question is a “brand hero” who exemplifies your firm’s ideal customer and who is not, as in inadequacy marketing, a product. This brand hero is not a helpless consumer, but a mature and contributing citizen (149-150). The brand hero in the case of Apple, for example, is a creative employee who breaks out of the usual mold and may buy a Mac, but the Mac is not portrayed as a “magical solution”.

 Jonah Sacks’ book, Winning the Story Wars, is a great read and a helpful guide to understanding our recent culture wars as played out in film, online, and in our political campaigns. I read this book to improve my writing skills, but it is a must read for anyone who wants to understand what “all the shouting is about” in our society today.

Reference

Campbell, Joseph. 1968. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[1] http://WinningTheStoryWars.com. @JonahSachs. http://DrewBeam.com. @DrewBeam. @HarvardBiz.

[2] In Hispanic films, people still consult a priest and/or visit a chapel to pray, but not in English language films. The last example of a chapel visit in film that I remember was in the film Home Alone (1990) starring Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, and Daniel Stern.

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Sacks: Why Stories Sell; Why We Care, Part 1

story_wars_review_11172016Jonah Sacks.[1] 2012. Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell—and Live—the Best Stories Will Rule the Future. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. (Got to Part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the online world that surrounds us, we are bombarded with messages from morning to night: email, spam, pop-ups, video, print media, text-ads, robo-calls, and even old-fashioned, telephone solicitors. Because messages bombard us from morning to night, only the most sophisticated ads get and hold our attention. At the heart of these winning ads is usually a mythical story.

Against this backdrop, in his book, Winning the Story Wars, Jonah Sacks writes:

“We live in a world that has lost its connection to its traditional myths, and we are now trying to find new ones—we’re people and that’s what people without myths do.

These myths will shape our future, how we live, what we do, and what we buy. They will touch all of us. But not all of us get to write them. Those that do have tremendous power.” (6)

Among those competing to gain this power through telling such stories are authors, film-makers, advertisers, religious leaders, and politicians of all stripes. Because it is not clear whose stories will dominate our attention (17), the recent election is a reminder that a lot is at stake.

In this environment of competing myth-making, oral tradition has become increasingly important because social media facilitates immediate feedback between story tellers and their audience, reminiscent of a time when story tellers gathered with their audiences primarily around a campfire. Because “all wars are story wars” (29), Sacks sees story telling as critical, not only to marketers who can either lift us up or tear us down, but also to citizens who may find themselves manipulated into fighting real wars.

So who is Jonah Sacks? Sack describes himself as a: “story expert, filmmaker and entrepreneur”. His back cover and website includes this description:

“As the co-founder and CEO of Free Range Studios, Jonah has helped hundreds of major brands and causes break through the media din with unforgettable [ad] campaigns. His work on legendary viral videos like The Meatrix and The Story of Stuff series have brought key social issues to the attention of more than 65 million people online. A constant innovator, his studio’s websites and stories have taken top honors three times at the South by Southwest Film Festival.”

Sacks divides his book into two parts and eight chapters, preceded by a prologue and followed by an epilogue:

Part One: The Broken World of Storytelling

  1. The Story Wars are All Around Us
  2. The Five Deadly Sins
  3. The Myth Gap
  4. Marketing’s Dark Art

Part Two: Shaping the Future

  1. Tell the Truth, Part I: The Art of Empowerment Marketing
  2. Tell the Truth, Part II: The Hero’s Journey
  3. Be Interesting: Freaks, Cheats, and Familiars
  4. Live the Truth. (vii)

Once you buy into the idea that stories matter and matter a lot, Sacks starts by instructing us on what not to do—the five deadly sins—which are vanity, authority, insincerity, puffery, and gimmickry (35). Vanity arises as an early problem because “when you love what you’re selling” … “you assume everyone else will too” (36).  Sacks uses an unforgettable example when he compares the acceptance speeches of John Kerry and George W. Bush in 2004—Kerry talks mostly about John Kerry, while Bush talks about what “we” can do (37-38). The contrast could not be greater. The other four sins are equally hard to avoid and quick to kill the credibility of a story.

Sacks repeatedly returns to myth as an important component in story telling. He describes myth as neither true not false, but existing in a separate reality (59). He attributes three ingredients in myth: symbolic thinking, having three elements tied together—story, explanation, and meaning, and ritual (59-61). For example, in Genesis Sacks sees creation as a myth with these three elements:

“STORY:               God created the world in seven days and gave man dominion over it.

EXPLANATION: This is how everything we see around us came into existence.

MEANING:          So God deserves our gratitude and obedience.” (60)

An important observation drives much of Sacks’ own storyline:

“a myth gap arises when reality changes dramatically and our myths are not resilient enough to continue working in the face of that change.” (61)

In our “rationalist modern society” (62) where people refuse to think symbolically, the myth gap zaps meaning and leaves people in an intractable state of hopelessness. “Forward-thinking religious leaders, scientists, and entertainers” who attempt to “reunify story, explanation, and meaning in their work” are quickly pushed out of the mainstream (63). Thus, the myth gap remains and people suffer.

Jonah Sacks’ book “Winning the Story Wars” is a non-fiction, page turner. The hugely fascinating illustrations are by Drew Beam. [2] In part 2 of this review, I will examine in more depth Sacks’ exploration of modern advertising and why we care.

[1] http://WinningTheStoryWars.com. @JonahSachs.

[2] http://DrewBeam.com. @DrewBeam.

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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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Christian Memoir: Looking Back

Cover for Called Along the Way
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Christian Memoir: Looking Back

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the ironies of life is that we are naturally strangers to ourselves. Our desires, motivations, and purposes lie behind a veil that we dare not pull back for fear of what might lie beyond. This fear cloaks our shadow side in mystery. It also limits our potential, our relationships with others, and our relationship with God. Pulling back the veil accordingly offers the hope that we realize our potential, become comfortable in the presence of others, and welcome God more fully into our life. My purpose in composing a Christian memoir is to lift this veil.

Role of Time

We experience life through the experience of time. The Greeks experienced time in two primary dimensions. The first dimension, chronos time (χρόνος), is measured in equal units: seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, and centuries. The second dimension, chairos time (καιρός), is a decision moment or crisis[1]. When we look at our wristwatches or calendar, we experience chronos time. When we crash our car or meet God, we experience chairos time. We normally think and move through chronos time. We normally feel and remember chairos time. This book is organized around chronos time, but the memories that fill it are mostly kairos moments.

I remember my early years in vignettes. These vignettes appear like electronic photographs without a time and date stamp. The stories that I tell about those vignettes are mostly the spin that came later reflecting on them. For this reason, these vignettes are best expressed in poetic form. Here we find kairos moments of a child who has not yet learned the discipline of chronos time. Objective thought, which requires some distance between the object and the thought, is also mostly absent and unlearned. Chairos time is chaotic, messy, embarassing. In a word, it is subjective. If the subject is your dark side, then you expect to find dark things. Honesty in this terriority is aspirational. Poetry helps overcome obvious tensions.

Caveats

One area where I cannot be entirely straightforward is in revealing personal details about the people around me. I can sign onto the journey of self-revelation. I cannot presume that my family and friends share my objectives in this respect. Their roles in this narrative will either be cloaked or absent. Please understand. This autobiography is not an exposé.

Four Big Questions

In my first book, A Christian Guide to Spirituality, I examined four questions in the context of the traditional teaching of the church:

1. Who is God?
2. Who are we?
3. What do we do about it?
4. How do we know?

The objective in that text was especially to explore the first question: Who is God? My second book, Life in Tension, likewise has that focus. This book focuses on the second question: Who are we? While this book focuses on my history, I am, in part, a stand in for the reader. It is my hope that in telling my own story that I will also help you tell yours.

[1] Both words appear in the Greek in this verse: “He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” (Acts 1:7 ESV)

[2] My thanks to Kreeft (2007) for highlighting these four questions.

REFERENCES

Hiemstra, Stephen W. 2014. A Christian Guide to Spirituality. Centreville: T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.

Kreeft, Peter. 2007. The Philosophy of Jesus. South Bend, IN: Saint Augustine’s Press.

 

Also see:

Preface 

Bothersome Gaps: Life in Tension 

Other ways to engage online:

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

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Franklin: Writes Structured True Stories

Franklin_review_08212015Jon Franklin. 1994. Writing for Story:  Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pulitzer Prize Winner.  New York: Penguin Books (Plume Book).

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Having grown up reading Boy’s Life, Reader’s Digest and Life Magazine, I love a good, real-life story. But as I remember it, even fiction once focused on ordinary life lived extra-ordinarily. The newer idea that fiction would be structured in the manner of an Indiana Jones movie—jumping from one action scene to another—still bothers my sensitivities. Perhaps, this new fictional form reflects a new reality—a life lived with less time, more routine, and impatience throughout.

In his book, Writing for Story, Jon Franklin likewise reminisces about the move away from short story publication with a slightly different focus. Traditionally, these short stories offered aspiring fiction writers an entry point for learning their craft. Back then, young writers could easily write and sell short stories. Today, the non-fiction narrative (NFN) provides a new entry point. Consequently, Franklin views NFN as “a profoundly important event in the history of modern literature.” (27)

According to Franklin, the NFN “combines the appeal, the excitement, and reading ease of fiction with the specific information content of nonfiction.” (26) The NFN likewise adopts the structure of a short story with a complication, development, and a resolution and marked throughout by twists and complications (21-22).

Jon Franklin is a professional writer and has taught both writing and journalism.  He has written a number of books. He received two Pulitzer prizes for his non-fiction writing while working as a journalist for the Baltimore Evening Sun[1]. In Writing for Story, Franklin writes in 10 chapters:

  1. The New School for Writers.
  2. Kelly’s Monster.
  3. The Ballad of Old Man Peters.
  4. Stalking the True Short Story.
  5. Structure.
  6. The Outline.
  7. Structuring the Rough.
  8. Contemplating the Structure.
  9. Polishing.
  10. The Nature of Art and Artists (xiii).

 Acknowledgments and a preface precede these chapters.

Appendices at the end of the book outline NFN stories featured in Chapters 2 and 3. The two short stories—Mrs. Kelly’s Monster and The Ballad of Old Man Peters

illustrate Franklin’s writing points in the chapters that follow.  Mrs. Kelly’s Monster earned Franklin his first Pulitzer prize for feature writing in 1979.

Franklin defines a story with these words:

“A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.” (71)

The need for a “sympathetic character” explains why, for example, one sees very few economists starring in television dramas—almost no one considers a brainiac researcher a sympathetic character[2]. Franklin observes that:

“Complications that are more fundamental to the human condition, involving love, hate, pain, death, and such, are very basic to the human dilemma and thus are fair game for the professional storyteller.” (75).

Here is a second reason why economists do not normally appear in television dramas:  the complications they face and solve are typically abstract and not basic, not matters of life or death. When the government shuts down, economists are not typically among the essential personnel required to work the night shift.  By contrast, medical personnel, police, fire fighters, and military personnel are considered essential and often appear in television dramas.

Franklin’s final point is about the resolution of the story:

“A resolution is simply any change in the character or situation that resolves the complication…A resolution, like a complication, can be either physical or psychological, external or internal… A resolution, by definition, destroys tension.” (76-77)

Resolutions are helpful to authors because while complications can exist without a resolution, every resolution has a complication. News stories are often endings without complications and may soon be forgotten.  Resolutions with interesting complications involving sympathetic characters are priceless.  Franklin’s advice?  “Never fixate on just one part of a story.” (78-79)

Franklin offers insight into the perianal question:  does a story have to have a happy ending?  He opines: “successful stories generally have happy endings…[because] the reader’s world has a surplus of sad endings…What the reader really wants is to be show some insightful choices that have positive results.” In a practical sense, sad endings are harder to write successfully so young writers should be wary of them (80-82).

It is hard to capture all the good advice that Franklin offers in a short review. A key takeaway is this—outline the structure of the story and pay attention to transitions that are labored. The problem may be in the underlying structure, not the polish of the writing. Another is to start with the climax, not the opening. Foreshadowing leads to the climax so starting the climax helps clarify what to foreshadow.  A further point is to show emotion, don’t just talk about it.

Jon Franklin‘s Writing for Story is a helpful book for authors which bears reading and re-reading. Even though I write primarily non-fiction, I still write a lot of stories and tell a lot of stories when I preach. Knowing the rules for story writing makes me a better writer. It may help you too.

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jon_Franklin. http://JonFranklin.com.

[2] In fact, The Brainiac is the name of a cartoon villain (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brainiac_(comics)).

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Tell Story; Find Peace!

Spiritual_autobiography_11012013Richard Peace.  1998.  Spiritual Autobiography:  Discovering and Sharing Your Spiritual Story.  Colorado Springs:  NavPress.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the rites of passage for seminary students is to write and talk about your walk of faith.  The first time it comes up it is intriguing and highly personal.  After a while the task becomes more laborious and a bit intrusive.  Why do committees keep prodding me about my journey of faith?  Richard Peace’s book, Spiritual Autobiography, provides some welcome guidance.

Peace cites three things that one can learn in writing a spiritual autobiography:

  1. To examine your life in order to understand the ways that God has been active.
  2. To notice the activity of God in your life and in the lives of those around you.
  3. To share with others what God has been doing in your life (7).

Later, he also observes that writing a spiritual autobiography provides a sense of direction to life (61).  Along the way, Peace uses the example of the life of Abraham to illustrate his points.  He also draws on the lives of Augustine (Confessions) and C.S. Lewis (Surprised by Joy) at different points in his writing.

As explained in his introduction (How to Use This Guide), Peace organizes his book into three broad sections:  “A Small Group Guide”, a description of “How to Prepare a Spiritual Autobiography”, and “Leaders Notes” (7).  Peace recommends breaking up a group study into seven sessions:  pilgrimage, call and blessing, encounters, relationships, testing, presentation, and celebration.  The preparation covers the role of the autobiography, content, process of writing, special issues, and the “spiritual discipline of noticing” (3).

Peace writes on spiritual autobiography following 20 years of teaching a class at Fuller Theological Seminary entitled:  “The Pursuit of Wholeness”.  As a professor of spiritual formation, Peace is responsible for helping aspiring pastors develop their own spiritual awareness and voice.  It is interesting that Peace occupied the Robert Boyd Munger chair.  Munger was also a faculty member but is best known for a sermon:  My Heart–Christ’s Home.  Munger was also my pastor when my father studied at Berkley University and when I was a toddler.

For me, the chapter on the content of a spiritual autobiography was an eye-opener.  Peace advises the writer to divide one’s life up into periods either by age or by periods reflecting the search for God (65).  In turn, divide these periods into sub-periods—eight to twelve altogether (67).  Examine these periods for encounters with God, crises of faith, and growth outcomes (71).  Then, describe the periods with information that you remember or gather from journals, photos, and letters.  Peace’s explanation of this process is worth the ticket of admission because it is a method for uncovering unresolved issues—the pains of life that form us and, if they are unprocessed, limit our growth intellectually, emotionally, behaviorally, and/or relationally (76-77).

Pain’s book, Spiritual Autography, is most helpful in understanding and talking about the faith that you already possess.  We paint the world in colors that we draw from the palette of our own experiences.  When we can talk about those experiences, we own them; they no longer own us.  Pain’s writing is accessible to maturing Christians and small groups should consider using it as a Lenten study.

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A Few Good Stories

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In May I graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  Commencement was held at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church—a large African American church in Charlotte, NC.  The experience seemed a bit otherworldly, in part, because I still have classes to finish this summer and, in part, because this was my first commencement in spite of multiple degrees.

 I commenced for the first time because when I graduated high school, the senior class protested graduation–a very 70s kind of thing to do; when I graduated in college, I was sick with mononucleosis; when I received my master’s degree, I was an exchange fellow in Germany; and when I received my doctorate, I was frankly too poor to travel back to Michigan.  So commencement gave me a new story to tell.

Seminary has taught me the value of a good story.

From epistemology we know that the existence of God cannot be proven (or disproven).  What logic would you use?  Logic starts with assumptions—which ones are irrefutable and who says so?  Consequently, our experience of God starts with a story.  A story is a model of reality.  In financial modeling, the adage goes that it takes a model to kill a model.  Because all models are imperfect, only a better model provides a suitable critique.  Questioning the use of a model is, frankly, not to understand the challenge of risk management in complex modern financial corporations. Likewise, as Christians we need to ask:  which story best fits what God has revealed about himself and what we know about our world?   Arguing for no story is not to understand the human dilemma. The Christian witness is that:  In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1 ESV).

An important postmodern challenge to the Biblical witness comes from literary critics who argue that the meaning of words is arbitrary.  Words have no inherent meaning and, in effect, pose a kind of Rorschach test exploited by power-seeking individuals and groups who impose their meaning on the texts—especially ancient texts taken out of social context.  They employ this critique to discount the historical testimony of the church and the biblical record.  The Bible’s use of stories, however, deconstructs this critique itself!  Stories provide context.  Hebrew doublets restate particular sentences in different words.  The meaning of particular words is then obvious from context and the use of doublets. Stories transcend the arbitrary meaning of word-symbols by drawing on experiences common to all human beings.  As Mark Twain used to say:  It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.

In clinical pastoral education, I learned to listen actively and, in particular, to listen for the stories that people tell.  The hospital visit, for example, is a transition story—a patient comes with a problem, seeks a cure, and is released.  Economist studies to be a pastor is a reinvestment story.  Anniversaries can made both tragedies and victories on a particular date each year.  The pastor that tells a story about a new acquaintance—is probably being autobiographical.  Biblical stories are often rehearsal stories—stories from the past with current meaning.  Identifying the story that a person tells helps establish emotional connection—an important vehicle for sharing the gospel.

The Gospel is the story of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  The apostle Paul invites us to join in Jesus’ story with these words: that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:10-11 ESV).  Life has meaning because we know where we fit in Christ’s story.

Seminary has taught me the value of a good story.

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