What You Believe

Jon recently posted a few observations regarding Pixar’s storytelling, and the advice given by one of their story writers.  As I read through the complete list, one item really jumped out at me:

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

As a Christian and a Science Fiction writer, there is a deep urge to find a way to bring Christian concepts into the world of genre fiction, because so much of the literature out there brings in a very different world view.  However, the more time I spend thinking about a particular value or concept and how to weave it into a story, the more I find myself frustrated at how it just isn’t going to work.  The story feels banal, hackneyed, forced, or just plain obvious.

At times this can lead me to the thinking that I should just write what I feel like writing, and forget the whole idea of trying to weave my personal belief system into it.  However, that is a very unsatisfying frame of mind.  I want my writing to reflect my beliefs.

So I came across this tip, and it threw me into a cocoon about what this means.  I’m not sure if I’m just emerging, already taken flight, or if I’m caught in my own chrysalis still, but I’m going to speak to it anyway.

I’m somewhere in this picture, I just don’t know where.

See, having a burning conviction or belief that is behind the story doesn’t mean I start with a belief system or concept and decide I need to write a story to illustrate it.  That’s not a belief burning within me, that’s a belief burning my fingertips that I’m trying to shove into your hands, like a game of hot potato that you didn’t know we were playing.  Having a burning conviction driving the story is more like having a fire in the corner that is warming the whole room – it creates an environment, an atmosphere, and when you say, “Gee, where is that heat coming from?” only then do you sit and look at the fire and think on what it is about.

Okay, enough with the weird picture language.  In practical terms, what this means is that I let my imagination run, apply all the good tips and tricks for quality storytelling and such, but let my convictions shine through as the opportunity arises.  Do I believe that there is a moral standard and that actions have real consequences?  Then my characters experience this, perhaps because they share the belief, or perhaps in spite of the fact that they do not share that belief.  Do I believe that life is sacred?  Maybe the real hero of my story stands up for the sanctity of life at all opportunities, even if the storyline doesn’t really revolve around that idea.

The point is, don’t make your belief that forms the basis of your story be what the story is all about, unless as you write the story you discover that it was all about that all along.  Instead, let your beliefs shine through your story by being a person of conviction.  Going back to the fire analogy – the room won’t be very warm if the fire is little more than a pile of glowing embers.  Stoke it to flame, feed it, and it will give heat to your story, regardless of your intentions.

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2 thoughts on “What You Believe

  1. I can think of a few exceptions, but they are just that: exceptions. Think of Gulliver’s Travels or the Chronicles of Narnia. Swift and Lewis wrote very specific ideas– very specific beliefs. But then again, I’d argue that Lewis was a master, and Swift was no novice!

    I think you (and Pixar) are right in saying that you just write a good story, and your worldview will inform the storytelling and slip through. You may find a theme and then accentuate it as you wish, but just tell a good story. If someone wants to read an essay, they’ll look up essays. When people read stories, they want a good story, not propaganda.

  2. Yeah, there are exceptions to every rule, but usually it’s a master storyteller who gets away with it. I was just talking with my wife about that last night – when Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings, he began with no plan. He wrote the arrival in Bree completely off the cuff, and the introduction of Strider was a spur of the moment, “Hey, it might be cool if there was some sinister fellow watching them from across the room.” He actually had no idea how Strider would play into the story long term at that point. That kind of approach goes contrary to what all the manuals say, but for a guy like Tolkien, it worked. For me, I’ll stick to the rules for now, at least until I have reason to believe I’m good enough not to. Of course, that raises a question… did Tolkien know he was good enough to do it that way, or did he just do it that way and we all found out how awesome he always was?

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