Everyone Loves a Good Story
Stories have always been something familiar. Ask somebody what their favorite story is and they won’t stare back with a blank look wondering what the word ‘story’ means. As children, we’re introduced to this world of stories where there’s danger and adventure everywhere, dragons really do exist, princesses sneak away from their lives to join a band a pirates, and anyone can fly by just thinking happy thoughts and a little bit of pixie dust. But as we get older (as in the puberty stage and we become “too cool” for stories) we trade these stories out for real life. Going through this phase, we learn things about reality and we somehow end up returning to stories. The stories are slightly different from the ones in our childhood and a different kind of adventure and danger is present. We realize things aren’t always black and white and sometimes the good guys do awful things and the bad guys have a slightly legitimate reason for being bad. And sometimes, the endings don’t seem all that fair.
When stories have unjust circumstances and seemingly unfair endings, the Church (specifically the Western Church) can be hesitant to use them. Happy, tidy endings are always preferable, characters that easily overcome any difficult circumstances (of course, with the help of Divine Intervention), and a clear distinction is made between the good and the bad guys. There are no gray areas that give room for the bad guy to be bad because of circumstances out of his control or for the good guy to be resentful towards the world. It is all black and white and the ‘happy ending’ is given and it is just as cheesy and predictable as ever.
The idea of a happy ending is so appealing because that is what we want in our own lives. When we are faced with a not-happy ending, we will try and twist it and fix it to make it happy enough for us to believe it. Field’s points out in her article two prime examples: Rob Bell and Brian McLaren. These two authors have gone as far as to say that there is no such thing as Hell because how could a loving God send people there? Essentially, it does not matter how you lived, you will have a happy ending and not be sent to Hell. They believe the Bible is made so much more appealing to audiences with an ending like this.
By changing this ending so drastically, they are doing something that every good storyteller knows you’re not supposed to do. Make the character do something completely against his nature. While of course, we are not speaking of a fictional character here. We are talking about the living, existing God. But when these two authors changed the ‘ending’ by declaring no one would ever go to Hell, they essentially are saying that God is going against His own character. Yes, he is a loving God, but he is also a just God.
Our Obsession with Endings
The ending is always where the storyteller wants to get his point across. It’s where people look to it for a new meaning of life or some moral lesson they can learn. Americans are known for their love of the sappy, happy endings. When a story is told, but the ending we are given doesn’t live up to our own standards, then we claim it wasn’t all that great of a story to begin with. Some even go as far as to write their own endings and post it for others to see and enjoy. One thing can be said of this: we are obsessed with endings. Perhaps it’s because we just want to feel good about life, or maybe it’s the fact that we don’t know what the ending to our own life story will be. Whatever the reason, we still have this huge importance placed on the ending.
While great characters are wanted in our stories, these great characters sometimes get sacrificed for a great ending. In many of our stories, what becomes more important is our ending. We want to stun our audience with such a clear message of the Gospel, redemption, and hope that we will go through any lengths to make sure this is done. Usually it’s at the expense of our characters, but it can even be done at the expense of a realistic ending.
Bryan Stone writes in his article (which I highly recommend everyone reads) that, concerning movies, the last five minutes is going to be the only thing the audience ever really remembers about the movie. So if a story was completely awful, with a ridiculous plot line and even more ridiculous characters, but the ending somehow redeemed the entire story, people will automatically tell you to keep reading/watching. The ending is worth it.
The Christian Storyteller seems to know this. So this would be an explanation as to why every Christian story seems to go beyond cheesy. They want to present the idea that by God’s power, we can have a ‘happy ending’ to our life. Art and Soulis quick to say that “if we begin simply with an attempt to communicate a worldview it will miscarry: it will be merely propaganda.” (161) C. S. Lewis seems to have such a clear, allegorical take on the Gospel in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Yet, when he was writing the story, he never actually intended for it to become an allegory. He was merely writing a children’s story. But his ‘worldview’ came out clearly in his story and it wasn’t seen as propaganda.
But how is having happy endings a form of propaganda if we are merely giving the audience what they want? A happy ending with a Gospel twist. Because isn’t that what every person is after? The American Dream and the Pursuit of Happiness? But if we really look at these ideas, we realize that the Bible doesn’t promise either of these things. In fact, going exactly by what the Bible says, we can expect to never have what Americans call a ‘happy ending.’
This might sound just the tiniest bit depressing, but we are given something far much more wonderful. The idea of hope. We cling on to the idea of hope, even in desperate times. Bryan Stone gives a list of movies that won Academy Awards, yet a happy ending didn’t happen in any of them. Instead, they ended tragically with the death of the hero or someone the hero loved. Despite the tragedy in their death, the movie would not end with just that. It would end with the idea of hope.
These movies aren’t considered ‘Christian.’ The characters in the stories aren’t the best and brightest of human kind either. Yet, it is through the actions and how they respond in the situation that brings out the hopefulending.
Another way this type of ending could be described is by using the word content. At dictionary.com, the definition ‘contentment’ is placed under the definition of ‘happiness.’ “Contentment is a peaceful kind of happiness in which one rests without desires, even though every wish may not have been gratified,” This is another aspect of the hope God has given us. That we have contentment “in any and every situation,” (Phil. 4:12b)
Considering these things, we have to remember one of the basic elements of storytelling. The plot or theme is never the driving force of the story. Instead, it is and always should be the characters that drive the story. And if you let the characters be, then they will end up showing your “worldview” without it having to be forced and crammed into the “last five minutes.”
Respecting Our Characters
Ernest Hemingway wrote, “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.” Whenever I find myself reading a story, or even writing one, I want the characters to be realistic enough to the point where I can relate to them. As Hemingway said, for the character to become an actual person. A character that is used only to create a happy ending is in no way relatable.
Writing out characters as if they were actual people would give them a realistic response as well. As a person telling the story, we know exactly what kind of situation or problem we are going to throw at the character. Once that situation is given to the character, it literally is left in the character’s hand to decide how to handle it. To respect the whole idea of storytelling and the characters, we need to let them figure out the situation and handle the problem in a way that would line up with their personality and traits.
One of the defining qualities of a storyteller is their ability to observe people in real life. The observations that they make about people show up in their stories, specifically in their characters. Following this line of thought, you could say that they way characters are presented and qualities in them are the way the storytellers see people in real life.
Characters in stories are going to be placed in difficult circumstances. If there is a story about a person merely going about their day with no difficulty happening, you have no story. However, there will not be a good story if the character does not respond in a way that lines up with their personality. And if their personality dictates that in a hard situation, they lash out in anger or become completely stagnant towards God, then that should be the response that is shown. To create any other type of response for this character would, not only go against the character, but the integrity of the writer. A lie is being presented to the reader. Why do we even consider doing this? Perhaps it’s because the focus is once again placed on the story line. In order to get the ending we want, the character has to completely contradict himself. A good character with a believable personality is sacrificed for a happy ending.
So when we take these characters, place them in whatever situation, but don’t allow them to have a response that actually lines up with their traits, it’s showing a side to us that maybe we don’t want to admit. A side that says we are willing to give up a real response for a ‘happy ending.’ This isn’t done only in our own lives, but in way, we want it for the people around us. It makes us uncomfortable to hear someone say that they believe God has been unjust towards them and their situation. Yet, instead of listening to them, it’s easier for us to tell them how to fix their problem, what exactly they’re doing wrong, say a cliché, Christianeze phrase, then send them on their way. We would rather force the happy ending instead of seeing how the situation in their lives plays out and how God works his redemption, grace, and blessings into their lives.
Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” When someone is blessed beyond anything they imagined, it is easy to rejoice for them. The automatic human response is to rejoice. We have no problem showing this in our characters. But when tragedy hits us, we become awkward with our emotions and don’t understand how we’re supposed to feel. Of course, the automatic human response would be to mourn, but that word has taken an almost negative tone in Christianity. And it shows up in our stories.
We’ve trained ourselves to repeat the phrase “God is still good.” Of course this is true. But when we say this as soon as something tragic happens, we’re forcing down those emotions of sorrow. Because God is still good, we have this ridiculous reasoning that this means we shouldn’t feel any kind of emotional pain. God was the one who gave us those emotions so that we could respond to these kinds of issues. Even Christ himself displayed these human emotions in John 11:35.
We have become so obsessed with the idea of a ‘happy ending’ that we have thrown these emotions out in our stories. We place the character in a tragic situation, yet we give them a resilient spirit as they hold their head high and declare that God is still in control and it’s okay. These characters must be extremely resilient because not even the prophets of the Old Testament were like this. People love to see relent characters, but there has to be a build up to it. A character cannot become resilient overnight or with the turn of a page.
Donald Miller faced a lot with his story, Blue Like Jazz. While it was a story about his own journey in faith and the responses he had towards situations and God, many evangelical churches were hesitant to accept it. It wasn’t necessarily because they were afraid of the doctrine or theology he might have presented in the book. Instead, it seemed as if they were afraid of the very real response he showed in the book. It was a real, honest, and truthful response. We have become so used to ‘tidying’ up our response, it’s literally shocking when we see someone (specifically a Christian) do it in their story.
It’s time that we come to the conclusion that these human emotions we are so afraid to show are okay to not only feel, but to show. In a way, we’re even encouraged to in Galatians 6:2, “Carry each other’s burdens,” How do we expect others to help us carry our burdens when we refuse to even admit that we have a burden? God created us as emotional beings and when we try and bottle these emotions up, it can harm us in ways we can’t even imagine.
The idea of not being afraid to respond is something that we are still going to be struggling with. But perhaps redemption of this idea can be started through the way we present our characters. These people in our stories should be given the chance to respond in a way that fits them. We connect most to the people who have honest and real responses. Responses that, maybe, if we allowed ourselves, we would’ve felt in some situation. These characters should be allowed to respond truthfully. “Truthfulness demands complexity,” and we are complex people. (Art and Soul, 53) We have emotions and responses that maybe we don’t completely understand ourselves. But that is what makes it so real.
Of course, one cannot just sit back and criticize everything that’s wrong with stories and the way Christian’s tell them. This is an example of how I believe storytelling should be done. It involves a story that is very close to my heart, which maybe that’s why I feel like I owe it to myself and these characters to treat them with such a high level of respect. It has to be remembered that this is not the complete story, considering this story doesn’t necessarily have an ending yet.
Considering all of the things that were said, an idea that we should always remember is the idea of hope and the grace that accompanies that hope. Through the stories we tell and the stories of our lives, no matter what the situation is or what the ending is or even what kind of response is first given, there is still both hope and beautiful grace.