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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Heart of the Story

I've been pondering lately about what makes a fantastic story, and also thinking a lot about the things Donald Maass discusses in his book The Fire in the Fiction. Because I want very much to reach my readers' hearts with powerful stories that will make them rethink their lives and values, I spend a lot of time considering the themes of the books I write, especially while in the planning stage.

I'm working on a new book entitled Intended for Harm, a modern-day interpretation of the story of Jacob and Joseph. I've always related to Joseph (read my blog entry on playing dominoes in jail with Joseph), since he too suffered a horrible family betrayal and also was so mistreated by so many people when all he wanted was to do good and please God.

So as I began plotting my new novel and all the pieces started falling into place, I kept asking myself: "Just what is the heart of this story?" "What am I really wanting the reader to think about and take away with them when they finish reading this book?" As I prayed about this, I kept getting tugged away from Joseph--who I thought all along this book would center on. God kept bringing me back to Jacob. "What about him?" I kept asking.

As with all my novels, I like to take as much time as needed to let ideas and themes grow organically in my mind and heart. I do not push myself to hurry and get a plot figured out or characters summed up easily. I mull over my ideas and characters sometimes for months until there is clarity of purpose. It feels as if I get given all the ingredients for a great soup, but I just don't have any idea of what I'm really making or what aftertaste will linger until I actually let the pot simmer for a long time and then taste it.

I finally got to the "aha" moment in developing this book when I realized it was about Jacob I was meant to explore. Here was a young man despised by his father. His father preferred his twin brother, and he made no attempt to hide it. Jacob hung out with his mother, and was a more sensitive son. But I saw in my Jacob a man who runs away from his past steeped in confusion and lacking peace. For, men who have abusive or absent fathers consistently struggle with believing in a God who could truly love and accept them for who they are.

This became a huge revelation to me as I discussed my book idea with others. God connected me with people who had the same story of the husband or father or brother. I began to see this almost-epidemic situation of men who could not and did not believe God loved them because of being unable to relate to a loving father figure (and often these men have mothers who are overbearing and judgmental).

My Jacob, then, wrestles with God--not in the way the biblical Jacob did, but in the way that is too prevalent today--wrestling with the concept and acceptance of a God who loves them. Especially when things go wrong in life, when dreams fail and tragedy strikes, this ugly lie of the enemy powerfully sinks deep into the heart of men who fear judgment and who feel they can never measure up. Despite knowing what the Bible says, despite realizing their feelings are completely unscriptural. Those things don't matter. What is experienced in the heart forms the truth of their perception. I know now it is time to dig in and write the book. I know exactly what story God wants me to tell.

I had this image yesterday appear in my mind--of the earth's fiery molten core. How the outer landscape of the surface of our planet has been molded and shaped by the activity of the core's heat. Our stories on the outside, on the surface of our plots, show a landscape of life. there are valleys and mountains, deserts and prolific forests. Yet, what creates all the diverse terrain is the hot core, a place that burns so hot it would melt everything in proximity.

That is how I see a powerful book, one that has fire in the fiction. The deep core of our stories must burn with heat, with passion to tell something important. That is--if it's important to you to tell those kinds of stories, the life-changing kinds. From the great burning unquenchable fire springs forth all the elements of a beautiful story--what we read on the surface. But when a writer truly taps into that fire and lets it be the force the molds and forms the landscape of her story, it will be a powerful one indeed.

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