Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Guest Post: Phil Wade on Handling the Truth

Since 2003, Phil Wade has been blogging with fantasy author Lars Walker at Brandywine Books on everything from novels and art to theology and politics. When not whipping up new content, he works as a graphic designer, writer and editor for CBMC. He thinks most everything is better with a cup of coffee. I asked Phil what, in his estimation, makes for a good story. What he provided was an essay on suspension of disbelief -- and a provocative thesis on theme.

Dan Brown has another novel coming out soon. If your response to that is "I knew Lars Walker had a new novel, and Jared Wilson and Hunter Baker have new books too, but who is this Dan Brown?" then the Lord bless and keep you. You are the hope we have been looking for. But about Brown's new book, The Lost Symbol, I won't be surprised if it causes another wildfire of reviews and debunking. His last effort inspired many writers on- and off-line to criticize his craftsmanship and tear apart his historic claims. But Brown's truth claims in The Da Vinci Code, more than his word choice or plot devices, sold it to hundreds of thousands of readers -- not what was genuinely true in his wildly non-historic novel, but what was presented as true, moreover what was accepted as true by many readers. From what I understand, Brown's biggest fans were those who wished, hoped and wanted the story to be true.

Truth is the essence of every good story, its presentation and acceptance. In other words, readers are willing to suspend disbelief only so far and only on certain things, no matter what the story is. For example, our hero can fall several stories to a barn floor, groan at the impact, and then run with remarkable strength within a few minutes as the hoard of super-strong zombies chase him, but if we know he has only five bullets and he shoots 30 times, some of us will feel cheated. Does that make sense? The zombies, the physical endurance, the crazy science or magic in a story like that are just threads in the story fabric. They can be accepted by the reader as long as select truth threads are there, like how many times bullets can be fired (as a trivial example) or what values drive the heroes to fight for survival (as a significant one). To put it another way, you can make all kinds of things happen in superhero stories, but if the difference between the Justice League and the Darkness Fraternity is only that the former group is tired of killing people, you've got a lame story.

Justice, mercy, love -- these are real truths that resonate with readers (far more than the hackneyed theme of being true to oneself). The better you dramatize those ideas, the better your story will be. For the Christian writer (which is what I happen to be), that's a great asset and part of the problem, because crassly documenting the truth within a work of fiction violates fundamental story principles. Think of all the wonderful truths found in Hamlet. Do any of them sound like notes Shakespeare shoved in? Does poor Yorick walk on stage to say, "I have studied this life truth, dear prince, and have my dissertation on the subject before me to read into the record"? Some Christian novels read like that. Doubt is a child's tempter. Love always wins the day. And what tears may fall will fall on cue.

I'm rambling a bit -- could be dissonance from that zombie illustration; but it could also be because those truth threads differ in every story. Shallow stories can still be good because they are woven with just enough truth to hold together. Deeper stories will have more truth in them and fail or succeed on the strength of their heavier patterns. If Elizabeth had squelched her prejudice of Mr. Darcy while whistling the advice she took from her parents, sisters, and neighbors, repeated on almost every page, to follow her heart always and be true to herself, then her classic tale would have failed to inspire even though its fabric was dyed in many smaller truths. The big idea of the story wouldn't hold it together, enough that is to be considered a really good story.

Of course, if Jane had written in the zombies ...

(Picture: CC 2007 by
Mark Lobo Photography)


Jessica (The Bluestocking Society) said...

Wow. What great thoughts. As an avid reader of fiction, I think it's important to step back from time to time and compare what it is I accept as "true" while I'm reading a book, and what I take from the book as "truth." Thanks for making me think.

Loren Eaton said...

During my sophomore year in college, I took an Intro to Philosophy class where the professor stressed two simple ideas: (1) understand what the author of a text wants to communicate to you; and (2) only evaluate it after you gain that understanding.