In my last post, I told you that “Our books and stories contribute to the formation of our character. Our efforts and decisions shape and improve us, or they hold us back. The same is true of the stories we create and consume.” And, I claimed that, “We don’t tend to rise above the books we read.” I stand by that, and I’ll tell you why:
Not All Stories Are Created Equal
I recently read a short but wonderful blog post, from the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival in Lehi, Utah, which reminded me of content from the book, The Healing Power of Stories, by Professor Daniel Taylor. The post’s author, Kim McCloskey, referenced the four labels that Professor Taylor uses to categorize stories. I had encountered the divisions before, while homeschooling my children, and I still use them myself as an author.
The categories Professor Taylor uses are: Whole, Broken, Bent, and Healing; and as I have considered the many stories I encounter and create, I have personally added a fifth category, which I have named, Warped. The categories are flexible, and sometimes even overlap, but we can make some generalizations about each one.
I love these categories because I know not all stories are created equal in their power for good or evil. As I consider my own backlist of books I have read through life, I remember tales that have elevated me to celestial heights, and others I still regret encountering, years later. Literature has the power to heal us, rouse us to action, or even harm our souls, depending on its content or intent. That is why we must carefully choose the stories we read, and consider the kind of stories we write. In the post I mentioned before, Kim McCloskey states:
“In the stories that we tell and the stories we seek out we can look for truth as well as hope. This doesn’t mean that we avoid sad or tragic tales because they are seemingly hopeless. Sad, complicated stories can also elevate the listener if we realize that there are more complex ways [of] responding to them rather than by just simply being happy or sad. If a story can move us beyond our sadness to find empathy, healing, or a call to action then the well-told tale can continue to live on long after the story is over.”
How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book. -Henry David Thoreau.
1. Whole Stories
In all of the stories we read and the tales we tell, there are a lot of different ways that we can experience and express truth. Probably the most common truthspeaking type of story is what we call “Whole” stories. A few of my favorites in this category are, The Lord of The Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien; Ready Player One, by Earnest Cline; and even Where The Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak.
Whole stories are entertaining and enjoyable. They present good as good, and evil as evil. Aside from the necessary misdirection required to create suspense, there is little uncertainty about who the “good guys” are. The protagonists may be flawed but often tend toward selflessness. We root for the heroes, boo the villains, and good triumphs in the end. Children’s stories of this variety usually teach simple truths in entertaining ways and may become beloved family “bedtime stories.” Many Whole stories rise to the level of becoming Healing stories.
Many classic novels fit this category, and with good reason. We often read and reread such stories because they are masterfully crafted, memorable, and leave us uplifted and entertained as they reveal and espouse Truth. There is an underlying optimism in such tales that prompts us to look upward and reach for higher things. When the protagonist triumphs, we rejoice with them. Whole stories help us to focus on what is good and beautiful, even if they do not always have a strong religious tone. At their best, they are genuinely uplifting and inspiring. But, if written without due care, they often fail to connect deeply with some readers by being overly simplistic, “preachy”, or featuring flat characters who achieve easy victories over non-threatening opposition.
2. Broken Stories
Like Whole stories, Broken stories contain both good and evil, but it may sometimes be hard to discern which is which. These are often fallen or dystopian worlds in which Evil takes a prominent role and may even win in the end, despite Good’s best efforts. Broken tales are more like Lord of the Flies than they are The Lord of the Rings. In such stories, we have a sense of the brokenness of human nature, but Good is still believable and appealing. Although Evil may win at the end of some stories (1984 and Animal Farm), there is often an element that suggests hope is not lost, and the reader feels certain that Goodness and Truth will make a comeback (The Hunger Games). Readers are often unsettled as they read Broken stories and sense the parallels between the fictional world and their own lives and communities. Like a broken bone, that which is wrong in the story, and in the reader’s life, can be reset and healed. While less obviously uplifting, such stories still have the potential to move us deeply, and motivate us to heal something broken in the real world. Unlike the open allegiance to Truth that appears in Whole stories, Truth is sometimes apparent in Broken stories only through its absence or opposition.
3. Bent Stories
Bent stories are essentially Broken stories that have gone too far. They may even purport to have “good intentions” and confront challenging issues and topics, but they are derailed from their potential for good by content and methods that do more harm than good. They often take matters of goodness and virtue and “bend” them to unworthy uses. Such stories are often easily identified and avoided in print but they can be harder to avoid in movies and other visual media. Often, their calculated intent is to deliberately “shock” or push boundaries. They do more to undercut faith, hope, and virtue than strengthen them. They may include good and virtuous characters, but often portray them as boring, weak, or ignorant of “the real world”. Evil, on the other hand, is portrayed as seductive, powerful, and reasonable. Such stories typically conclude with Evil victorious. Even if Goodness is allowed token victories, Wickedness wins the overall war. Unlike Broken stories, which might highlight weakness, but leave room for redemption beyond the pages, there is little or no hope in Bent stories. The story seems designed to deliberately sway the reader’s desires and actions toward darkness instead of light. Like a piece of twisted metal, no matter how we work to try and straighten it out, it remains damaged and unsuitable. Only “melting the story down” to start over could make it useful. Bent stories can make us feel trapped and hopeless about the world.
Despite these negative attributes, many Bent stories and films find large audiences to praise and promote them. If a virtuous reader or viewer does consume a Bent story, it is often after a lot of social pressure and rationalization, and may be followed by justifications intended to soothe the viewer’s conscience. Bent stories may be popular with those of questionable standards and praised as “brave” or “edgy”, but in reality, they are merely an excuse to indulge the reader or viewer’s base passions.
4. Healing Stories
Healing stories are often the most complex ones, but can also include the simplest of tales. They present good and evil honestly and can arise from both the Whole and Broken categories, depending on the “half” the reader brings to the encounter. It is extremely difficult for a Bent story to be Healing, but it is impossible for a Warped one. Healing stories are the highest form of storytelling because they acknowledge the reality of Evil, counter it effectively with Good, confront Falsehood with Truthspeaking, and present characters that readers can identify with and strive to emulate. Like the reader, the protagonists in Healing stories are fallible and flawed, but good wins out in the end, even if it is beyond the pages. In a Healing story, the listener is profoundly changed or healed by the encounter. The answer to the story’s problems, and perhaps even a problem in the reader’s life, is offered within the story itself. Such stories spark positive paradigm shifts, personal revelation, and righteous resolutions. Not all Healing stories become classics, but many of them do. The test is whether or not the reader can come back to the story, again and again, to be reminded of Truth and further enriched and healed and instructed each time. Aside from the scriptures, some of my favorite examples include, The Hiding Place, by Corrie Ten Boom; The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho; and The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis.
5. Warped Stories
Warped stories lie at the opposite end of the spectrum from Healing and Whole ones. These stories are not merely Broken or Bent, they are a deliberate and irredeemable distortion of Truthspeaking. Their content is spiritually corrosive, despite the praise they may receive from those of low morals. In such stories, virtue is ravished and corrupted. Good is either ignored or proclaimed to be the real evil, while Evil is presented as the ultimate good. Any higher power, such as God, is attacked, and replaced with the “god” of carnal appetites. Like a gnarled and twisted tree, there is no way to realign “the grain” of a Warped story and correct its mutilations. Such stories do not “sin ignorantly.” They clearly recognize Truth because they strive to directly counter it. They abuse their First Amendment protection, work to be as morally objectionable as possible, and blatantly seek to promote wickedness and bondage in the reader as they simultaneously claim to promote freedom.
While Whole and Healing stories are memorable for their quality and virtue, Warped stories are like parasites that burrow into the brain; their wicked content and images are recalled unwillingly and with pain and remorse by readers of virtue. The process of becoming numb to such content, or of developing an addiction to it, is a warping of character that should be avoided at all costs. It is to be hoped that such content will never access your mind, nor mar your pages.
The Trouble with Content Labels
As we identify examples of the five types on our own bookshelves, or seek to critically assess stories, the specter of censorship rears its head. “You’re censoring books and being too sensitive,” people will say.
Censorship is a real threat, as it obstructs the sharing of ideas and opinions and hinders the spread of truth. However, cries of censorship are also heard in truth-speaking situations when a spade is simply being called out as a spade. The freedom that allows the truth to be spoken, even when it is unpopular, also allows much that is despicable and depraved to speak, as well.
Many harmful stories that are Warped or Bent have protection through the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but such freedom to exist does not equate to a right to demand that such stories receive an audience, nor guarantee their acceptance. The freedom of artists to produce such content is balanced by the rights of readers to clearly identify, reject, and avoid it if they choose.
As we compare and contrast examples of the five divisions, we see that boundaries can blur between them. Stories can fit multiple types, depending on the “half” that we bring to them as a reader. The combination or contrast of authorial intent and reader interpretation is also important; different readers may gain a benefit or receive harm from the same story, independent of its author’s intention. Challenging content can be triggering to one reader, but it’s transcendence and defeat by the story’s protagonists can be inspiring to another.
When you reread a classic you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than was there before.” -Clifton Fadiman
How well do the stories you read and write entertain or draw readers toward truth and personal improvement? And to what extent do you sense they do otherwise? To what degree do you agree or disagree with my categorizations? How might you label them differently? How would you categorize the stories you write and the books you read?
Because writers create at least “half the poem” in whatever they write, authors and poets have an awesome responsibility; and by “awesome” I don’t just mean, “incredibly cool,” I mean, “mind-blowingly important and impressive.” You, as a writer, invite your readers to enter new worlds. They come, carrying all of the baggage and road dust of their lives, and together you forge a connection between their “half” of the story and the big ideas of your world. Your creative power is incredible in terms of its potential impact. What will your world contain? What truths will you express? What higher themes and elevating content will you share? Will your “half” of the partnership leave your readers better or bitter? Will you inspire greatness or merely entertain? Will your content heal hearts or break them?
The world awaits your answer.