Make It Say Something – What Separates Good Stories from Great

Looking back on my years of writing, I’ve probably undertook half a dozen larger novels, have seen only three unto completion, and made a point to have one published.

So what seperates that one from the rest?

While some stories we write just don’t hold together so well because we’ve written them at a time of inexperience or immaturity, I would also venture a guess that sometimes we are more in love with the world we imagine or the idea (whether it be a character, plot, concept) than the utility of the story.

For years I fell into this trap of dreaming elaborate worlds that were honestly no more interesting than anyone else’s imagination. Though I naturally felt my characters, my world, my plot had an innate merit in it, I began considering how many of my novels never saw it to fruition because they lacked something deeper than imagination.

They lacked a statement.

I confess that the beginning of Masks was undeveloped during that early stage of writing my first “pilot” chapters of random characters. The world I was spinning had more to do with interesting character concepts instead of character depth or even thematic elements. It was going to be a flashy “what if Halloween never ended / what if ordinary people became vigilantes” sort of story.

Fortunately, early in the writing process, I made a distinct choice to go a different way with this story idea, to instead of write for the sake of exploring this imaginative rabbit hole of mine, that I’d make this story “say something” in order to give the writing process purpose. I wanted a story that wasn’t merely an escape from reality, but something that could fictionally parallel to my real life and to my real world around me.

This had a huge impact on my writing energy, fueling me to finish a project rather than to see how far the dream could self-perpetuate until it became dull. My story was no longer being written for the sake of being a cool idea, but rather the cool idea was the garment that the “say something” needed to wear, to “reveal” a message by putting on a colorful robe of imagination (if that makes any sense).

So, I made my writing say something.

What Does Your Story Say?

Baron & Sheepshead, Illustrated by Lexie Takis Arts

The image featured in this blog is the illustration from Part 3 of Masks, wherein we see Sheepshead–a former drug addict–attacking a drug dealer, Baron.

These two characters themselves put on new identities in order to say something of themselves. Sheepshead puts on the dead skull of a ram to remind himself of the “little goat” he still has inside of him from his past, to remind him of the stubborn impulse he fights against that could lead him to death. Baron puts on the façade of the Haitian Loa of death and debauchery as a commentary to the lifeless addictions of those whom he does business with, but in a way that celebrates the human weakness that he sees and exploits.

Masks could perhaps be broken down into two different messages…

The first theme is that of fatherhood. While every human being has a father, the roots and absence/involvement of fathers in each character’s life greatly impacts the direction that each character takes. More than that, the series hangs on the image of a father who will go to any means to find his lost child. This image was evoked to me in the music video “Everything” by Lifehouse, and the image today for me as a father has remained a particularly emotional one.

The second, and perhaps the more prominent message of the series, is that of deification. In this story, each primary character is moved towards putting on a mask in order to become something greater than their ordinary selves. This applies to both the heroes and villains of the story, and for good reason. While one typically sees deification as the process of becoming a saint, it is also true that the opposite direction of this path is an anti-deification, becoming an idol, a monster, a demon. The story speaks to how few steps it takes for one to cross the threshold between saint and monster, that sinner can become saint, and that hero can transform into the monster it fights. More importantly, it communicates how this battle between the two deified forces occurs invisibly in the midst of ordinary and mundane individuals, who either abhor, adore, or are indifferent to this conflict.

One such character, Overman, finds the maskless mass abhorrent for their inactivity, and although Overman is a menace and a monster in his motives, he is true to pick out the unmotivated mass as not participating or at least acknowledging something greater taking place.

In one sense, the masks in this book are the vehicle of this divine agency, the veil that reveals humanity’s nature and potentiality. The story is a book about sainthood in the sense of a transfigurement of the human, while also being a thriller of a creature feature where the mundane becomes a monster at night. This book hopefully challenges the reader to not remain idle and without identity, but to “put something on” and allow that idea and future self contest against other great Masks.

What I challenge each of you is to wonder if your book has a universal call to action, a message it needs to say that can compel a noble initiative.

And if your story is perhaps all dream, all illustrious, and without this core message, I challenge you: make it say something!

Genesis 7-Life is Full of Floods

Genesis 7:1-10

The Lord then said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and one pair of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, and also seven pairs of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth. Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made.”

And Noah did all that the Lord commanded him.

Noah was six hundred years old when the floodwaters came on the earth. And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives entered the ark to escape the waters of the flood. Pairs of clean and unclean animals, of birds and of all creatures that move along the ground, male and female, came to Noah and entered the ark, as God had commanded Noah. 10 And after the seven days the floodwaters came on the earth.

Humanity’s poor trajectory

In the last reflection, we spent some time discussing the cyclical nature of violence. Humanity seemed to calcify into a feedback loop of cruelty which attributed to wickedness. Then the flood came. Humanity was destined to self-immolate itself, and instead God washed it all out, quickening the process in a kind of baptism. The world would be made anew, and hopefully humanity would have a fresh start to repent, to be clean, just like any bath or baptism.

But this is not what I’d like to spend too much time focusing on in this chapter of Genesis. We have read about the conditions leading up to the flood, and we will read what takes place after, but for now I think it important to give some credence to the thing that saved humanity from the flood: the Ark.

The Ark is a vessel, and vessels are more remarkable than what we give them credit for. Imagine how long it took for us to discover the principles of buoyancy, and imagine having to describe this principle to a child. I once taught a Bible Lesson on the concept and found myself so ignorant and speechless, unable to convey something we take for granted.

The great reset

Water is a symbol of death and chaos. We typically think of it as life because we need it, but drinking from the ocean doesn’t bring life, and being stuck underneath it for any extended period of time drowns us. The sea is a tumultuous thing, seemingly with a life of its own, and the waves we admire and surf upon from the beach or an entirely different thing when we are rocked upon them by them on a boat.

Water is a fitting symbol in this story to illustrate what can and will happen for all of us. Perhaps we will not live through a literal deluge or tempest that will take out everything we know, love, and found comfort in, but we will all experience a surge, a storm, a long period where we feel robbed of sunlight and hope. The flood might be a break-up, a death, a dire consequence, physical or mental malady, the list is inexhaustible. Not to make these experiences of sufferings a kind of utility, but much like the flood, such deluges and tempests will put an end to old cycles and habits, washes out the sullen dirt of our sins, and the salt of the rising sea is akin to our tears of repentance. What I have noticed in suffering is that a change can emerge, a new human is born, priorities shift, and there is a sense of a “fresh start” that happens when one enters, dwells within, or exits such trying times.

a foundation, a boat

Nonetheless, suffering is trying, and sometimes the waters of life do seem to rise up above our heads without respite. Not everyone makes it out of grief and sickness unscathed or transformed. Too often the suffering multiplies as the misery is taken out on others or ourselves, quickening our own demise.

Such was the case for mankind, a boat is required of us. Our boats in life come in many forms. Sometimes its people. Sometimes its work or a vocation. Sometimes its a dream or personal goal. Having worked with individual suffering from depression especially after loss, I have seen many kinds of boats built/prepared for such types of floods, and the two qualities of these boats seems to remain constant: transcendent and everlasting.

Too often we fail to consider our purpose or inappropriately assign our purpose to tangible things that will not last forever: affluence, comforts, people, a job, etc. Too often we stake our happiness or confidence within ourselves, our dream of becoming something without any consideration that we on our own perhaps are insufficient and not built to stand alone. What is left when nothing outside or in is sufficient to hold us up in these storms is the only thing that is transcendent and everlasting: God & His Church.

The Church is often described in nautical terms, involving rules called by a “rudder” and a sanctuary wherein the people gather together in a “nave”. But the Church is not merely the rules and the books, not merely the place to worship; it is those elements, and MORE. It is those who are with us rowing on earth, and those who are spiritually rowing from us–the saints and the blessed reposed–that have gone before us. Prayer is the mast, and the virtues are the floor boards. This is our only hope to brave the storm as we are told, for in faith and in the Lord is our only chance at miraculous buoyancy.

And yet, we see many faithful people crumble under grief, walk away from hope after sickness. It’s painful to see when strong men and women of faith crumble under these pressures as it hurts our own sense of hope, that people we might regard as stronger than us falter to the storms of life.

A judgement call should not be made in regards to “did they really believe” or “were they really good people”. Instead of prescribing to anyone how to “make right” in the face of a storm, I think we ought to stay with Noah and his Ark, and realize the answer to any storm is rather simple.

It is a kind of obedience, a deliberation, a labor, and a perseverance. Noah followed God’s orders to build an Ark when there was no sign for a storm–he prepared for it. Noah had to do quite a bit of work creating such a marvelous piece of technology, a feat that could withstand against nature. Noah had to endure the long days and nights of constant clouds and downpour, perhaps battling seasonal affection disorder to some degree, stuck up in the smelly confines of a rickety, feces ridden boat.

What kept noah afloat

I think it important to keep these virtues in mind that Noah exhibited in the face of total catastrophe, but even more than that I think we ought to take some stake in his primary action: building.

Noah built himself a structure to the right dimensions that he was given. He didn’t try to make the boat on his own, but rather rose to God’s challenge to make this giant thing. How often do we receive instructions from our leaders, our pastors and priests, our friends and family to rise to a challenge of goodness, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and we find ourselves short of said instructions. How often do we piece together this boat of ours, putting off the work of responsibility, mercy, and prayer until we find ourselves in a storm with a half-made boat? How often do we overlook the pitch needed to plug the holes, forget to consider our own weaknesses, personal flaws, ticks and neuroticisms without any careful introspection or quiet contemplation?

What is guaranteed in life is that each of us will be met with a storm, of one kind or another. We should consider this our warning and give some thought as to what we have already built for ourselves to withstand the deluge, what we can do to keep reinforcing its hull, and if the thing is really sea-worthy.

Today, consider the following

  • When have I been in a time of great sorrow or suffering? What did I do to get through it? Was that helpful?
  • When have I seen someone else in such a time of great sorrow or suffering? What I do? What didn’t I do? What do I imagine I’d like someone to do for me in such a scenario?
  • What habits, rituals, schedules have I laid out for myself that help me grow into a better person?
  • What is one quality of myself that could be “washed out” before life takes me by storm? What are some reasonable steps I could lay out to scrub that out?
  • What is my life’s vessel? What is my purpose? Will it stand against a flood? Will it float?

I’d like to thank Dr. Jordan Peterson for instilling a great deal of inspiration in this reflection of the Flood. You can watch his lecture on the Flood on Youtube.