The Number One Rule in Great Story-Writing

A great storyteller can bring a character to life, metaphorically speaking. There’s no one who does it better than the novelist and poet Wendell Berry. His Port William “membership” is replete with memorable characters, and his Burley Coulter is one of the great characters in contemporary literature.

Sometimes a storyteller or novelist will confess that he did not know a character when he first introduced him. J.R.R. Tolkien said as much about his character “Strider.” He introduced him before he knew who he was or what role he would play in the story, then let him grow into one of its principal characters.

A great novelist can bring a character to life, metaphorically speaking. God, the greatest storyteller of all, brings his characters to life literally, and gives them (within limits) space to create their own roles. Humans get to be (to borrow once again from Tolkien) “sub-creators,” assistant storytellers, tasked with shaping their own stories.

The great storyteller leaves room in his script for his creatures to develop their own personalities and choose their own roles—without ruining the end of the story. Think of how complicated that must be! Tolstoy worked with over 180 named characters in War and Peace. God works with over seven billion at once, allowing them all to write their own story (in part, at least), and still manages to give it a happy ending.

And what a story it is, crammed with beauty, jubilation and pathos! Like all great stories, it is full of conflict and resolution. The first rule of writing fiction is: introduce and overcome conflict. Apparently, that’s Rule One in real life too.

My wife and I recently watched “La-La Land,” and I was mildly amused by how transparently (and sometimes suddenly) the writer-director introduced and resolved conflicts. But life, which is the great writer-director’s story, is also filled with conflicts and resolutions, and many of them are introduced (and sometimes resolved) as suddenly as anything in La-La Land.

You would think God would exempt his principal characters from the conflict, let them rise steadily to prominence and success. Not a chance. In fact, his principal characters seem to encounter more difficulties than the rest of us.

Take St. Paul. He begins, like many characters in books and films, on the wrong side. He not only faces conflict, he causes it. But he is won over by Jesus himself and becomes a prominent character on the side of good. Does that solve his problems? Not at all. It increases them.

Not long after Paul is introduced into the story, he is threatened and forced to run for his life. The bad guys want to do him in and the good guys don’t want anything to do with him. As each conflict is resolved, a new one is introduced. People on his own team try to undermine his efforts. As soon as that crisis is resolved, his best friend and he have a heated disagreement and go their separate ways. If that’s not enough, he is arrested multiple times, beaten regularly, ridiculed, shipwrecked, bound over for court and charged with a capital crime.

Could it be that in life, as in fiction, a character cannot develop to his or her fullest potential without conflict? And, if that is the case, why are we always so surprised when we encounter it? Why are we so determined to avoid it?

Think of what would happen if parents got to write their children’s stories. They’d remove every obstacle, every pain, and cause their children to rise steadily to prominence and success. Fortunately, God does not allow us to write other people’s stories, not even our children’s. He doesn’t allow us to do so because he knows we would create underdeveloped and defective characters.

It’s the characters that are most important to God, not the plot. That’s why he allows us a role in writing our own story. If he were trying to create the perfect plot, he would never let us touch it. But his goal – at once more difficult and more satisfying – is to create characters that are beautiful, fully alive, and immortal.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 5/13/2017

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2 Responses to The Number One Rule in Great Story-Writing

  1. Life as a Story, and God as the Author/Editor… one of my favorite metaphors! It raises lots of possibilities for thought and discussion.

    Ron

  2. salooper57 says:

    Indeed – “…the title and cover page of a story that goes on forever, in which each chapter is better than the last.” – Shayne

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