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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Story Time


A thought-provoking idea was recently encountered in a book by Donald Miller, “Blue Like Jazz.” In it, Miller proposes the idea that humankind is drawn to story-telling, because the structure of stories mimics God’s design for human redemption. He suggested that an innate need for “conflict resolution” lives in each person’s heart. Through the telling of stories, whether in books, movies, art, and music, we experience examples of this process over and over again.

When I first began writing with any degree of regularity, I spent some time on the Internet researching the components to a successful short-story. The “formula,” as I discovered it, is as follows: Put a man in a tree. Throw rocks at him. Get him down.

With the exception of certain modern experimental novels, stories have always contained a set structure. There is the setting or background or context for the story, within which characters and circumstances are introduced. There is conflict as the story builds and tensions mount. Then there is the climax, or as is the case in a lot of novels that weave multiple storylines, multiple climaxes (no sexual innuendo intended). Then, resolution as the various plotline knots untangle themselves.

Put a man in a tree. Throw rocks at him. Get him down.

Don Miller’s contention is that, spiritually, human lives follow a similar pattern. During childhood, our context and background are established. Later, as we grow, we begin to learn and search for who we are in order to discover our purpose in life. For some people this is an intellectual and emotional process. For others this journey is spiritual in nature. At some point, often years and years into adulthood, we reach a decision point, or a series of decision points, that helps us make sense of all the years prior to that time, and ultimately determines our future. Then, our lives resolve. We have our ending, and the story is over.

Now, Miller’s description of this is much better than my own. I’m paraphrasing him from memory. It makes sense to me that the appeal of stories – regardless of the medium – in some way speaks to this built-in aspect of trying to understand the journey that is each individual human life. Through storytelling, we see our own lives lived out vicariously, as the characters within go on their own journeys, at times mimicking our own.

This is quite an interesting idea to me. I am, by nature, a seeker, always looking to better understand my own inner workings and my ultimate purpose in this life. Perhaps that is why I love to read: it is a mechanism in which to more clearly understand my own experiences, and “resolve” my own “conflicts.”

I never tire of stories, though most of them are essentially the same series of events told over and over and over again. It is a “nothing new under the sun” phenomenon. Man is born, he lives, he dies. What changes over time is the context in which each story is told. A character might be born in a palace in one story, and in another he is born in a field. In one story a character is a business woman trying to juggle work and family, and in another she is a pioneer fighting off murderous intruders. A character in one story might die from foul play and another from disease.

The context changes over time. For example, during the Victorian-era, obstacles to true love were often due to cultural tensions between social classes, and other external and economic factors. In the Internet age, when social hierarchies have somewhat broken down, we instead have romantic conflict that comes from within: the eccentric neuroses of the characters themselves.

All stories, as we know them, must contain conflict, inadequacies, asymmetry and unbalance, which eventually resolve in some way. Without these elements, there really isn’t much to tell; little to grab our interest; little from which to learn.

Here is what I have been pondering lately. What happens when we get to heaven? Will there be books? Will I still be able to read and write? If heaven is a place without tears, pain and death, what, exactly, will there be to write about? Surely there are trees, but if someone is going to stick me in one and throw rocks at me, then heaven is not the place I imagined it to be.

When posed this question, my writer-friend Darlene suggested that perhaps there will be books in heaven, but they won’t be written the way in which we are so familiar. She said perhaps they will all be nonfiction.

I cringed at this, since fiction books are my favorites. But then I had a thought.

The pattern of our “lives” in heaven will certainly not have the same structure as our lives on earth. Perhaps what drives us to record stories up there will be totally changed too.

You know how sometimes people say that in heaven we will finally understand everything? How maybe we will finally understand all the “why’s” and “how’s” of all the things that happened on earth the way they did? Well, maybe that’s what books will be about in heaven. Maybe there will be a book for every “why” or “how” that was ever uttered on Earth. Why did so-and-so die so young? How did this-and-that come about despite the odds?

Maybe there will finally be a record of all the ways events culminated to bring about God’s ultimate purposes. Detailed road maps of how things really happened and how beautifully orchestrated and interwoven were the events of history, from the gentlest sneeze to the biggest war. The butterfly-effect fully comprehended.

For a lot of people, reading and writing may not be their ideal picture of heaven. Maybe it will be fishing or scrapbooking instead. But for bibliophiles and writers, perhaps there will be a multitude of books and stories to choose from – to either read or write.

For those who wish it: ultimate understanding.

A man is no longer in a tree. He gathers the rocks that once were thrown at him, and understands their worth. With them, he constructs a sturdy house in which to live in the shade of the tree’s leafy boughs.

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