The Rhetoric of Fiction

The Rhetoric of Fiction


To what extent can fiction–meaning that to include all forms of storytelling–purge itself of all rhetoric?

By rhetoric I mean techniques and devices by which the author attempts to persuade us to think and feel about the story in a particular way. The question is, is it possible for an author to eschew all rhetoric and simply and purely lay his subject before his audience and allow the very nature of that subject to wield its effect?

Wayne Booth, in The Rhetoric of Fiction, thinks not. He asks us to consider the following murders:

“Macbeth murders Duncan, and we pity Macbeth rather than Duncan; Markheim murders the pawnbroker, and we hope for Markheim’s salvation; Monsieur Verdoux murders a series of wealthy women, and we side with him against a rotten civilization; the would-be heir in Kind Hearts and Coronets murders a half-dozen or so of his relatives and we simply laugh; Zuleika Dobson “murders” the whole of the undergraduate body at Oxford and we laugh, quite complicatedly; Ch’en, in Man’s Fate, murders a stranger in cold blood and we are terrified–for Ch’en. There is no need to list the many murders in which the more “natural” responses of hatred toward the murderer and pity for the victim are made to predominate” (p. 113, notes 26).

Booth wants us to see that even so universally condemned an action as murder cannot be depended upon to manifest its natural evil without the help of rhetoric–and that rhetoric can also be deployed in such a way so as to make us (at least momentarily) blind to the evil of the murder and in some sense “root” for the murderer. As I’m sure many people do when they watch the Godfather films.

But if Booth is right, then how is it possible for us to distinguish when a story is telling us the truth about its subject and when it is simply masking its subject with rhetoric?

What do you think?


* The image above, reproduced courtesy of Eippol at Wikimedia Commons, is of the original screenplay of The Godfather II in the National Museum of the Cinema in Turin, Italy.


Brief and Sundry Thoughts on John Michael McDonagh’s “Calvary”

Brief and Sundry Thoughts on John Michael McDonagh’s “Calvary”

pzZvVdwHTuvOrvdcVj-WteA9dhpevhMcX-4h3xyf9Es (Note: I won’t sum up the plot. For that, and more, see Steven Greydanus’s and Lauren Ely‘s excellent reviews of the film.)

I saw Calvary in the same week that I saw When The Game Stands Tall. Which manifested the stark and depressing contrast between the genre of well-meaning, cloyingly inspirational faith-based movies and those rare films, often made by non-believers, that searchingly and artfully wrestle with the Cross at the center of the Christian mystery.

But Calvary is a very hard film to watch. It is not for all sensibilities and is certainly not for family viewing.

To paraphrase Walker Percy, before life can be affirmed in a work of art, death-in-life must first be named. Calvary vividly and relentlessly puts on display the grotesque death-in-life of the ordinary “wellness” of contemporary man.

Flannery O’Connor: “I have found, in short, from reading my own writing, that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.” One might say the same about McDonagh’s subject in Calvary. In one scene in the confessional Father James wonders aloud to his penitent that perhaps the medieval belief in demons and demon possession was “closer to the mark” than modern psychological theories of evil. What Calvary shows us is pandaemonium, a parade of demons taunting the representative of Christ.

Brendan Gleeson is superb as Father James. And the character of Father James is one of the finest cinematic portrayals of a priest I can recall. Not that Father James is perfect, or that all of his counsel is sound (did I misunderstand the scene in which he advises the young man struggling with purity to go to a bigger city where there’s more women with loose morals? Was this an ironic joke?). But all in all he is virtuous and wise, and it is painful to watch his struggle faithfully to minister to those who can only taunt and abuse him. Calvary is a fine example of how virtue can be depicted without being saccharine.

There were some false notes. After a gripping opening I thought the second act sagged a bit, with too many stagey, talky scenes serving only for symbolic effect. I don’t think it did much for the narrative for Father James’s bishop to be so effete, but I suppose McDonagh wanted to contrast Father James’ integrity with the complacency of the institutional Church.

I don’t find the denoument ambiguous. I believe what McDonagh is trying to say in Calvary is that Father James is both the martyr-victim of those who seek to wound the Church in the wake of the clergy abuse scandal, and the very thing such people need the most. I thought the post-climax scenes of the townspeople going about their customary business was meant to show how lost they were without the grace that Father James attempted to bring them. The final scene in the prison between Fiona and Jack confirms the enduring gift of Father James’ final sacrifice.

In the end, Calvary argues that forgiveness is the only way past the pain of betrayal.


The image above is reproduced courtesy of Reprisal Films.

The Flashforward in Muriel Spark’s “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”

The flashback we’re familiar with. But the flashforward? Consider the following passages from Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie:

“You did well,” said Miss Brodie to the class, when Miss Mackay had gone, “not to answer the question put to you. It is well, when in difficulties, to say never a word, neither black nor white. Speech is silver but silence is golden. Mary are you listening? What was I saying?”

Mary Macgregor, lumpy, with merely two eyes, a nose and mouth like a snowman, who was later famous for being stupid and always to blame and who, at the age of twenty-three, lost her life in a hotel fire, ventured, “Golden.”


Eunice Gardner did somersaults on the mat only at Saturday gatherings before high teas, or afterwards on Miss Brodie’s kitchen linoleum, while the other girls were washing up and licking honey from the depleted comb off their fingers as they passed it over to be put away in the food cupboard. It was twenty-eight years after Eunice did the splits in Miss Brodie’s flat that she, who had become a nurse and married a doctor, said to her husband one evening:

“Next year when we go for the Festival–”


She was making a wool rug, pulling at a different stitch. “Yes?” he said.

“When we go to Edinburgh,” she said, “remind me while we’re there to go and visit Miss Brodie’s grave.”

In these and other passages in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Spark pushes the flashforward button and shows us the various futures of Miss Brodie’s young charges. Mary Macgregor will die very young in a hotel fire; Eunice Gardner will one day be a married woman longing to visit Miss Brodie’s grave. The formal rhetorical name of this technique, as David Lodge tells us in his analysis of Spark’s novel in The Art of Fiction, is “prolepsis.” Probably the most famous literary application of it is the prophecy foretelling Oedipus’s doom in Oedipus Tyrannus.

What is the rhetorical purpose of the prolepsis or flashforward? It is a concertedly non-naturalist technique, in that it shakes the reader out of the narrative dream and makes him aware that he is reading a story and that there is a narrator who, prophet- or godlike, knows how things will come out. In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the technique fits well with Miss Brodie’s own pretensions. “‘She thinks she is Providence,’ thought Sandy, she thinks she is the God of Calvin, she sees the beginning and the end.” (Sandy is the pupil who ends up “betraying” Miss Brodie–not a spoiler, since this is revealed in another flashforward). Lodge notes that “Of course novelists also see the beginning and end of their stories, but there is a difference, Muriel Spark implies, between useful fictions and dangerous delusions–also, perhaps, between the Catholic God who allows for free will and the Calvinistic one who doesn’t.” Sandy, Lodge continues, “falsifies Miss Brodie’s prediction [that another student, Rose, will become the mistress of the art teacher, Mr. Lloyd], and thus challenges her claim to control the destinies of others.”

In his reflection on Spark’s novel, James Wood sees the technique of the flashforward as Spark’s way of questioning authorial control and limit. “If the novelist acts like Miss Brodie, what does it mean to be a novelist? The novelist adopts God-like powers of omniscience, but what can she really know of her creations? Surely only God, the ultimate author of our lives, can know our coming and our going?”

Perhaps Lodge’s reply to Woods’ questioning would be that Spark’s use of the flashforward device shows a narrator in prophetic service to the Catholic God’s understanding of free will. Spark’s omniscient narrator, in other words, undermines the pseudo-omniscience of Miss Brodie by revealing the real, supernatural interplay of Providence and freedom in the lives of “the Brodie set” (pointedly, Sandy becomes a nun). Far from being an attempt to adopt God-like powers of omniscience, in Spark’s hands the flashforward seems to reveal the novelist’s desire to speak for the omniscience of God.

Genre Fiction vs. Literary Fiction: An Unnecessary Culture-Clash

Genre Fiction vs. Literary Fiction: An Unnecessary Culture-Clash


In this interview Ian McEwan did for the London Telegraph back in May 2013, an interview focusing on McEwan’s espionage novel, Sweet Tooth, I was struck by the following, rather refreshing remarks McEwan made about the relationship between genre fiction and literary fiction:

“McEwan says he is not bothered that Sweet Tooth might be categorised as genre fiction. For him, such distinctions are irrelevant. It is, after all, his second venture into espionage. The Innocent, published in 1990, was set in West Berlin at the beginning of the Cold War, and did no harm to his reputation as a literary novelist.

“In the end these things just dissolve,” he says. “The only question is how good a novel is, not whether it has spies or detectives or nurses marrying doctors. Take Conrad–we wouldn’t say of him that he’s merely a writer of seafaring yarns. What matters is whether a novelist can devise a particular and plausible world that holds us, and make a moral universe that has such a resonance that we can go back years later and find it still works. Then genre is transcended. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy holds up because it’s a brilliant novel.”

This is exactly right. When you think of the greatest writers, you find the supposed culture-clash between genre and literary writing “just dissolve.” The Iliad–the defining work of epic poetry or ripping good war story? Macbeth–highbrow tragedy or taut psychological thriller? These kinds of dichotomies are irrelevant. What matters, as McEwan says, is whether a novelist can hold us in a moral universe that has resonance.

Also in the interview McEwan refers to his liking for “narrative pace.” That’s a liking I wish were shared by more of our literary novelists.


The image of Ian McEwan above is reproduced courtesy of Thesupermat at Wikimedia Commons.

Am I Charlie?

Am I Charlie?


Is there a place for satire within a society and, if so, what (if any) are its limits?

The recent terrorist attack in Paris on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical weekly magazine, have forced these questions upon everyone, including Muslim cartoonists. I find myself thinking about them both as a citizen of the U.S. and as the author of a satirical novel, High Concepts: A Hollywood Nightmare.

Inspired by the early satires of Evelyn Waugh, in particular Decline and Fall, High Concepts is a comedy about an out-of-work philosophy professor’s misadventures posing as a Hollywood screenwriter. To deploy the verb typically applied to satiric works, the novel “skewers”

  • the way in which modern academia exploits adjunct labor
  • reality TV
  • the intellectual pretensions of the Hollywood elite
  • the intellectual pretensions of the academic elite
  • post-modern architecture
  • slasher film culture
  • pit bull rings

And more!

So I ask myself: is my satire any different from that of the creators of Charlie Hebdo?

In one obvious sense, yes. My novel does not lampoon real people. It is not even a roman à clef. It takes issue with certain social “types” and cultural phenomena, but no real filmmaker, academic, or academic institution appears in its pages.

Not that I necessarily have a problem with sending up real personages or institutions. The target of comedy is pretension, and it is salutary for any society that its leaders and elites be, now and again, brought back down to earth.

Charlie Hebdo targets real people and in a particularly nasty way. A free society should no doubt tolerate this kind of ruckus from the kid’s table (I borrow this metaphor from David Brooks’s recent excellent op-ed), while also looking for more edifying forms of social criticism.

Satire is a deeply moral genre. Satire casts judgment on a social scene from the point of view of a clear standard. In one sense I am Charlie in that I defend free speech; indeed, because I find Charlie Hebdo repulsive, I am something of a test case of tolerance for it. But in another and more important sense I am not Charlie because I criticize society on behalf of a moral standard–one rooted in natural law and the Aristotelian tradition of the virtues–that Charlie Hebdo’s creators would themselves find repulsive.

Within the confines of free societies a clash of cultures continues to rage. This war is not to be waged by force but by persuasion. Literary satire is one means of trying to persuade others by exposing the pretensions of moral standards that cannot live up to their promise.

Should An Author Judge His Characters?

Should An Author Judge His Characters?

House_of_Mirth_2Should an author of fiction or drama judge his characters?

Academy Award-winning screenwriter and creator of Downton Abbey Julian Fellowes, in a reflection upon his literary debt to Edith Wharton, registered this answer to the question:

“It is quite true that Edith Wharton has been a tremendous influence on me and on my writing although actually she came quite late into my life. I think I was in my 30s when someone gave me a copy of The House of Mirth and I was instantly impressed by the extraordinarily contemporary feeling of Wharton’s writing. Her dialogue was so immediate, her understanding of emotional predicaments was so vital. She observes but she does not judge.”

To observe but not judge: this is one of the chief tenets of literary modernism, still very much exerting its influence in our own day. The modernist ideal is for the author simply to make his characters and situations vivid upon the page and let the reader be the judge  of what they do (if that is what the reader should be interested in doing–which is another question).

But how is it possible for an author to portray human beings in action without, at least implicitly, making a judgment on what the characters choose to do?

Every choice is open to be judged as either good or bad. Even the mundane act of brushing one’s teeth is good insofar as it contributes to oral health. How much more the acts of falling in love, burying a sibling, lighting out for the territory. (Of course, we disagree on how to evaluate choices. A character’s escape from an unhappy marriage is one person’s heroism, another person’s act of betrayal. But this, too, is another question.)

So is it possible for an author to portray acts of this magnitude without registering how he thinks about them through the various dramatic and rhetorical devices at his disposal?


But more to the point, why would an author want to remain so neutral? Isn’t the point of telling a story that an author has something–i.e. a judgment–he wants to communicate? Isn’t the desire to remain neutral simply a mask for an author’s approval of what his character does?

To admit that writers of fiction make constant judgments in the portrayal of their characters does not mean that writers should not be, to some degree, sympathetic with their characters (even ones they find morally repulsive), or that they can be excused from working hard to depict what the character sees as valuable in a choice. For without this kind of sympathy and ability to see the world from the character’s perspective, drama atrophies.

But what must be dismissed is the idea that an author can remain neutral to his character’s choices as he maneuvers them across the stage of his fiction. Such neutrality is most probably an illusion, and in any case contrary to the storyteller’s art.

Or do you disagree?


The engraving above, by A.B. Wenzell, is from the original 1905 edition of The House of Mirth

The Oddness of True Detective and Other Hit TV Shows

The Oddness of True Detective and Other Hit TV Shows



Imagine it’s a Sunday evening, and you and your spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend are settling in to binge-watch one of the big TV shows you’ve been missing. You fire up the Netflix or Amazon Prime account and peruse your options–

A high school teacher turned crystal meth dealer (Breaking Bad)

A contemporary American politician in the vein of Richard III (House of Cards)

A mesmerizing nihilist (True Detective)

A zombie apocalypse (The Walking Dead)

Wait a minute. Anybody sense something rather odd in this line-up?

Drama has always dealt with bad guys and misfits, but this group is distinguished by the fact that the bad guys and misfits seem to be the ones we’re rooting for. We like watching Bryan Cranston’s Walter White throw his middle-class morality away. We like watching the hijinks of Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood, even though Underwood never gets the comeuppance that Richard III got. And who isn’t captivated watching Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle deconstruct, Nietzsche-style, the morality of contemporary bourgeois American life?

Even the zombies, though perhaps not the heroes of the piece, exercise a rather creepy fascination over us. We are both repulsed—and attracted.

Isn’t all this odd?

And it’s especially odd when you consider that we in the West, and especially in the U.S., live in what is purportedly the most progressive, self-aware, scientifically and technologically advanced age in history. Human reason has exposed the myths of religion and philosophy. Nature has been disenchanted. The world of politics, while always an arena of dysfunction, nonetheless promises more material good to more people than ever. One’s best life is available, if not right now, then as a result of a little risk and hard work. Even those living in the lower echelons of our economy enjoy luxuries undreamt of by the hedonists of former times.

But if this is all true, then why, in our stories, and not just on television, are we so interested in characters going off the reservation?

A. In watching TV or going to the movies all we want to do is escape for awhile. It’s fun to watch characters doing things we would never do.

B. This is not a representative sample of what’s on offer, even on TV. What about Sleepy Hollow? Downton Abbey? Call the Midwife? Foyle’s War? The characters in these dramas are more traditionally heroic, are they not?

C. The shows mentioned are written and produced by liberal Hollywood elites who delight in preening themselves as disruptors of the moral status quo. Perhaps feeling guilty for the kind of money they make, they make “edgy” entertainment to prove that they’re still anti-establishment figures.   

D. Our fascination with such shows is a symptom of a deep malaise. While it’s true that we enjoy a remarkable degree of material prosperity in our culture, at the same time we realize, if only half-consciously, that we are spiritually bereft. Something has gone deeply wrong, we just know it, although we can’t quite put our finger on it. The characters in the TV shows mentioned compel us because their decisions expose the fact that in the contemporary world we’re playing tennis, as it were, without a net.

Circle the answer that best represents your view.    

The image above is reproduced courtesy of HBO Home Entertainment under the following license.


Take the Downton Abbey Quiz

Take the Downton Abbey Quiz


Take the new Downton Abbey Quiz and find out whether you’re upstairs or downstairs!

At the end of a long, tiring day, you prefer to

A. Retire to your room to talk over your love life with your maid while applying generous amounts of hand cream

B. Call for Branson to bring round the car while looking forward to getting into your nightgown and reading Trollope in bed

C. Enjoy a last, meditative snifter alone

D. Concoct further spoils and stratagems with your partner in crime

E. Make sure everything is ready for breakfast in the morning

If you found yourself unexpectedly all alone in the Abbey you would

A. Take the opportunity to clean the second-best silver

B. Short-sheet all the beds in the family bedrooms

C. Poke around the little drawers in Lord Grantham’s writing desk

D. Go around and visit some of the poorer tenants before coming home to rearrange your snuff boxes

E. Stare out a window and think how boring your life is

Your secret life’s wish is

A. To see your biggest rival tried, sentenced, and hung by the neck until dead

B. To be named a marquis

C. Indoor refrigeration

D. To have your spouse discovered to have been only “mostly” dead

E. To return by time-machine to the sanity of the Victorian Era

Your favorite play, film, or television serial is

A. Upstairs, Downstairs

B. Macbeth

C. Pride and Prejudice

D. Miss Marple

E. Debrett’s Peerage (does that count?)

Your idea of the perfect day is

A. Scoring at least five verbal zingers before dusk

B. The satisfaction of having served your employer to the utmost of your capabilities

C. Finding out that the man (woman) that your sister (brother) is in love with is really in love with you

D. Taking it out on someone for no reason whatsoever

E. A hunt or shoot, followed by tea outdoors, followed by a nap, followed by a fine dinner, bed

*          *          *

So, which Downton Abbey character are you?

Actually, it doesn’t matter. What’s interesting is the fact that we like to take these kinds of quizzes in the first place. Why do we like to do so? Why do we like to identify with fictional characters, imagining ourselves living their lives? 

Why, in other words, do comic book and fantasy fans go to the annual ComicCon convention in San Diego dressed as their favorite characters from Lord of the Rings or Marvel?

Why, indeed, do children play dress-up and other games in which they lose themselves in fictional worlds?

What is the point of all this play?

This is one of the questions I am considering in my new book, The Happiness Plot, otherwise titled, The Odd Predicament of Being a Teller of Tales in an Age Which Has Lost Its Story, coming soon.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the question I raise. 


The image above reproduced courtesy of PBS Masterpiece.


Movie Review, THE HOBBIT: The Battle of the Five Armies

Movie Review, THE HOBBIT: The Battle of the Five Armies


If you’ve ever found yourself wondering what J.R.R. Tolkien himself would have thought of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, a six-film, decade-and-half-long pop culture event culminating this Christmas Season with the finale of The Hobbit trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies, then you should wonder no longer: he would have loathed them.

One can’t be absolutely sure, of course, but that’s the impression one gets after reading Tolkien’s Letters, in which the author comes off as rather prickly about proposed adaptations of his work (see, for example, Tolkien’s stiff opinions about possible collaboration with Walt Disney). Not that Tolkien was morally and philosophically opposed to adaptations of what he liked to call his “stuff.” Many fans of Tolkien may not be aware that in 1968 he sold to United Artists the film, stage, and (wait for it) merchandising rights to both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit for a figure of just over 100,000 pounds. That’s millions in today’s money, and it doesn’t include the 7.5% royalty interest Tolkien retained in any future adaptations.

I don’t mention this in a spirit of trying to expose a great author’s baser instincts. I think it’s perfectly natural and right in the age of cinema and television for an author, especially of Tolkien’s stature, to want to see his work translated into these media. Though it may be, as has been reported, that Tolkien’s contract with United Artists was motivated solely by tax pressures, I hope that he also saw the fittingness of adapting the world of Middle-Earth to other media, and especially the big screen. After all, if an author is going to invite us to visit another world entirely, then why not allow us to bring as many senses as we can?

That the film rights Tolkien sold to United Artists eventually came into the possession of New Line Cinema, was, contrary to what we might imagine Tolkien himself thinking, the most fortunate thing to happen to Tolkien’s literary legacy since his death in 1973. For it was, of course, New Line who hired Peter Jackson to adapt The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy of films, the enormous global success of which, ten years or so later, inspired the making of a prequel film trilogy of The Hobbit.

Peter Jackson rose to prominence as a young Kiwi filmmaker by making splatter horror films. (His very first film was the aptly named Bad Taste.) While Jackson’s first aesthetic love for the pleasures of excess has certainly been combined over the years with more mature tastes, that weakness nonetheless has remained. The decision–admittedly not Jackson’s alone–to make The Hobbit as a trilogy is a prime case in point. The Hobbit is a marvelous adventure story, primarily intended for children, with suitable material for one really good two-and-a-half hour film. Stretching the material into three movies handicapped the adaptation from the outset, inviting many ridiculous excesses on Jackson’s part. The 40-minutes or so of dwarf shenanigans preceding the first-act break in the opening installment of The Hobbit trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, is one instance that springs readily to mind. But the absolute nadir of Jackson’s entire involvement with Tolkien’s material came in the second installment of The Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug. The absurdity of the fight sequence involving Legolas and the (invented) elf lady-warrior Tauriel in the barrel scene was outdone only by the dwarf-flight from Smaug (involving the molten gold ploy) at the climax. The Desolation of Smaug was Jacksonian excess at its most refined, an excess that was probably hard to avoid with the source material stretched, as Tolkien might say, like butter scraped over too much bread.

And yet, The Battle of the Five Armies somewhat recaptures the glories of Jackson’s approach to Tolkien, an approach that reached its zenith in the culminating film of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King. Yes, there are glories to Jackson’s approach to Tolkien. It might be thought providential that full-scale film adaptations of Tolkien’s works were not attempted until the era of CGI and the maestros at Weta Workshop were around to work their magic. With these tools at his disposal, Jackson, with a coterie of very fine actors and artists, has allowed us to experience Middle-Earth in an extraordinarily imaginative way, meanwhile inspiring myriad people to encounter Tolkien’s writing on their own. Despite its drawbacks, The Battle of the Five Armies reminds us again how exciting and edifying for us Jackson has made Tolkien’s world.

Likely because it is the third part of a trilogy, in which a storyteller is obliged to tidy up all the loose ends, The Battle of the Five Armies has less padding and fewer absurd action sequences than one would have expected after seeing its predecessors. Though the source material, in my edition of The Hobbit, is only a little less than 70 pages out of nearly 330, the film, because it has an ultimate climax to achieve, is more narratively focused. Even when it comes to the battle sequences, Jackson hits the golden mean between excess and deficiency just about right.

These battle sequences, though filled with cartoon epic violence, are more often thrilling than not, and the final confrontation between Thorin and Azog springs some welcome surprises. Moreover, though the scene in which Galadriel confronts Sauron missed its moment, and the scene of Thorin’s victory over his own gold sickness needed a dramatic correlative outside his mind, these defects are redeemed by Martin Freeman’s wonderful portrayal of Bilbo Baggins, Richard Armitage’s Thorin Oakenshield, Luke Evans’ Bard, Lee Pace’s Thranduil, and, the anchor of all six films, Sir Ian McKellan’s Gandalf. The closing scenes of The Battle of the Five Armies, in which we say goodbye to Bilbo and connect his story up to the Lord of the Rings, are a fitting end to all that Jackson has accomplished over six films.

Indeed, all things considered, Tolkien’s legacy has much to be grateful for in what Peter Jackson has done with it. Both artists, in a way, save one another’s work from its respective excesses. Jackson saves Tolkien’s novels from an excess of legendarium detail at the expense of story, while Tolkien saves Jackson by giving him material of real substance. Since 2001, thanks to both Tolkien and Peter Jackson working together, film audiences have been able to venture into a world governed by virtue, heroism, honor, the priority of home-life over power (as Thorin reminds us in his parting words), and the dignity and efficacy of the “little guy” in a culture of death. It makes one melancholy to have to leave such a golden world. But now that we’ve seen it we will surely, like Bilbo, never be able to forget it.


Images reproduced courtesy of New Line Cinema.

Story Structure and the Meaning of Life

Story Structure and the Meaning of Life

cover (4) It’s been a productive week. Yesterday the third book in my children’s Kingdom of Patria series, a Christmas novella entitled The Chronicles of Oliver Stoop, Squire Second Class: The Quest for Clodnus’s Collectibles, went on sale at Amazon. I had to take the book off-sale today, however, after discovering a small glitch that needed correction (Amazon/CreateSpace takes books off the shelves if they need to be reviewed again). But the glitch has been corrected and the book should be back on sale by tomorrow at the latest, and I’m very happy about that. (If you’d like a signed copy of the book, just drop me a line and I’ll mail you a signed nameplate sticker that you can post inside the book.)

Meanwhile, I’ve been using Scrivener to put together the digital version of the book. I hope to upload that to Amazon sometime tomorrow.

Back in November, some of you may have been following my series of posts on storytelling structure, The Happiness Plot. My original intent was to write 40-some short posts (approximately 300 words each) during November and, after some revision/addition, publish the ebook in early December priced at 99 cents. The press of business prevented me from achieving that goal, though I have far from abandoned the idea for the book. In fact, I’m back at the manuscript, and I believe, in the end, I will be publishing a better product than it otherwise might have been.

The point of The Happiness Plot is to help working writers, and just plain lovers of fiction, think more deeply about the meaning of stories. It’s odd. We live in a world that has turned quite skeptical about truth and meaning, yet every day countless writers around the globe (just notice how often #amwriting trends on Twitter) shackle themselves to their writing desks in an attempt to communicate something meaningful to their readers. Is all of this effort just a waste of time if there is no objective truth “out there”? Or does the telling stories hint at a deeper reality to human existence than many are willing to admit? In the book I argue that there is an intriguing relationship between story structure and the happiness that provides meaning for human life.

Among the ingredients I’ve been throwing into the stew of my thinking on this topic are the following books:

  • Robert McKee’s Story
  • Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos
  • James Woods’ How Fiction Works
  • Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction
  • Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue and Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry
  • Charles Taylor’s The Ethics of Authenticity
  • Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception
  • Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

I’m now aiming for a Christmas Day (or thereabouts) release for The Happiness Plot. My hope is that this little book, while getting into some meaty theoretical subjects, will also prove to be of great practical value for writers.