This is my third post on being a Christian writer. Yesterday I said that God is my writing mentor. You may want to read the two posts preceding this to get a sense of what we’ve already talked about.
One of the raging debates among writers revolves around what constitutes the heart of a story. Is it plot, or is it the characters? A good writer, I think, knows that it’s both. God would seem to agree.
Plot is what gives the characters a canvas to paint on. We don’t exist in a vacuum, do we? No. We are who we are, at least in part, because of where we are. My identity is ultimately in Christ, sure, but it’s manifested within the larger story God is telling. In the overall plot of his epic tale. We already know how the most significant plot points play out (Christ returns, gathers his people, we all live happily forever after). But even more, “We are God’s (own) handiwork (his workmanship), recreated in Christ Jesus (born anew) that me may do those good works which God predestined (planned beforehand) for us (taking paths which he prepared ahead of time), that we should walk in them (living the good life which he prearranged and made ready for us to live)” (Ephesians 2:10, Amplified Bible).
In other words, we’re talking about predestination vs. free will. If we attack this conundrum theologically, as Christians often do, we get our shorts tied in a knot. But as Dorothy Sayers insists, writers ought to be fairly comfortable with this tension because we deal with it every day.
Most writers plot fairly extensively. Writing mentors and courses teach plot arcs, how to structure scenes for plot advancement, etc. This is predestination for our characters. There’s something larger we need to get done. We already know “Mr. Jensen” must bump into his nemesis at the mall and lose his wallet, or else recovering it at the climax won’t make any sense.
However, this does not mean “Mr. Jensen” is a mere puppet. Because any writing mentor worth her salt will also tell you that the characters must take on a life of their own and even surprise the author as they flesh out the plot. If this doesn’t happen, in fact, the characters will feel like fillers. Robots. Automatons that aren’t interesting at all. In other words, his characters must have free will in order for the story to jump to life.
While plot is critical, the real story isn’t about the plot. It’s about the characters. John 3:16 does not say, “For God so loved the plot of his grand story, that he sent his only son to play his role,” It says he “loved the world.” The people. And so even an unbeliever like J.J. Abrams (creator LOST, Mission Impossible 3, the new Star Trek) reminds us, “ET is a movie about what? It’s about an alien who meets a kid. Right? Well, it’s not. ET is about divorce. A heartbreaking divorce, a crippled family, and ultimately this kid who can’t find his way.”
A Christian writer must know this. It’s not about the action. Not about tension, the suspension of disbelief, not ultimately about the plot or anything else. First of all, it seems to be about an issue or a truth. But not in abstract. The purpose of a story is to explore an issue by running it through a living, breathing person. Why? Because a person makes an issue an experience. And an experience can resonate. It can sometimes even be replicated. In other words, a good story is about people doing and saying things in such a way that we end up looking at ourselves in the mirror and learn from it, which is what James says happens as we study scripture, God’s story: “Anyone who listens to the word… is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror…” (James 1:23).