Monday, November 19, 2007

What Lies Beneath

I recently watched the movie The Straight Story for the first time, based on the real life story of a seventy-something-year-old man who crossed the state of Iowa in his 1966 John Deere tractor. It’s a David Lynch film.

Very slow movie to get started (especially for a suspense author). You just have to sit back and get in the groove. But I loved it. Just a feel-good type movie. Not until after the movie did I learn it was based on a real story. So I went googling for the guy’s name—Alvin Straight. Neither was I familiar with David Lynch films, which apparently are quite dark. I ran across this
very long review of TSS. It totally changed the story for me. Based on the premise of what kind of films David Lynch usually does, it talks about the dark side of TSS, how the surface, sweet story masks something totally different. I think the review is quite plausible. In fact it answered logic questions I had about the movie, which cannot be explained if you see The Straight Story as merely a feel-good, sweet story.

I’m no dummy when it comes to picking up symbolism in a story, but I never saw any of this dark underside of the movie. I'm not alone. Most of the reviewers didn't either, which was exactly the point of the reviewer linked above--i.e., the other guys missed the whole point of the story entirely. (Since the movie's based on a true event, Lynch would have perhaps taken lots of license in creating the dark underside to the film.)

All of which leaves me to wonder: what good is symbolism or allegory running beneath the obvious, surface story if hardly anyone gets it?

I'm struggling with this question in writing my current manuscript, Vain Empires. (The title is taken from a line in Milton's Paradise Lost.) On the surface the story is my trademark "Seatbelt Suspense." But it contains quite a bit of symbolism about the fall of man--and how Satan, through his temptation of Adam and Eve, taught man to pursue "vain empires" instead of believing in God.

I keep wondering how many readers are going to see all the symbolism in my novel. I'm thinking--particularly because of the genre in which I write--perhaps not many. In a large way I foment "surface reading." I try to write suspenses that are fast-paced with twists and chapter hooks. My readers get into the groove of trying to figure out the twists before I spring 'em. With all the action going on, even smart readers may miss underlying symbolism. And the majority of my readers are Christians. How much less, then, would a non-Christian reader see the symbolism? And these are the folks who'd need to see it most. Now if I relied on that symbolism as the only Christian content in the novel--in other words, wrote in a "Christian worldview," as it's often labeled, but saying nothing about God in the surface story--would the story "work" if most people never see the underlying message--the point of the book?

I'm apt to think the book "works" if a reader finds it good suspense. That's what it's supposed to be. If the surface story rocks--hey, I've done my job as an entertainer. But the deeper side of me--the side that wants my stories to mean more than only what's on the surface--would be disappointed.

Some in the Christian writing world are apt to hold up Jesus and his parables as examples of how our storytelling should be. In Jesus' day those who got it got it, and those who didn’t, well, too bad for them. In fact nobody got it until he explained the parables to a select few. But is that really an example to take for my own writing? Do I want my novels to be that hard to “unpack?”

I asked some other writers about this, and here's how one responded (used with permission):

I am not of the camp that believes that we can write allegory with religious themes to our modern audience and expect them to see that other layer below the story. Blind eyes have enough trouble discerning John 3:16, let alone something I turn into an allegory. Unless allegory is explained to the reader. . . I just don't see the point.

Bottom line for me is this: Why would someone use allegory which essentially obscures the message they want to impart to a great part of their audience? I don't see the point. ESPECIALLY in a society that is becoming increasingly unimaginative and illiterate. IMHO allegory does NOT "reach more.. It "confuses more." And the fact that the only people who "got" the parables were the few who were there later when Jesus EXPLAINED them is my defense. Jesus told PERFECT stories. . . . and still the majority of the people remained clueless. Now He had an eternal purpose in doing that and He was God. That was a specific time in history meant for a specific people. I don't think it was an example for me to follow in my writing life.

What are your thoughts on this--for my writing, for your own, for CBA fiction in general?


Joyce said...

For what it's worth from a still-to-be-published author who loves symbolism in narrative, it's my opinion that so much of this is on a sub-conscious level, or for those of us with little kids, a somtimes unconscious level. Symbols are everywhere and we use them all time, some more overtly than others ( road rage, anyone?) and there are certain universal symbols that appear in literature and most if not nearly all readers "get." For me, there is something magical and woderful about seeing the symbols after a paragraph or a scene are written and to know that for me at least I think it's a bit of the Holy Spirit as well. I'll never forget when my agent read my first novel and she pointed out deeper meanings that she gleaned that I didn't know I wrote. That's amazing, for reader and writer because it is through these unplanned symbols, when we let our Christian world-view as it were, or our artsy side rise to the surface uncoached. Suspense is the perfect palce to put symbols--Alfred Hitchock was the master of this. Also, I think that not everyone has the same literary insight and if a reader flies right over the symbols--well, that's not always a bad thing, as long as they are flying over it in a good way, not because of boredom. This is one reason why I believe all authors need to read poetry--it will open your eyes to symbols and images that we would otherwise miss. We say we should write with all five senses and that's very true but there is also something to be said for that sixth sense--intuition--i's where symbols live. ~ Gee I could talk about t his for ever. Maybe I will on my own blog. Peace! Joyce

Nicole said...

I guess I'm not one for suggesting there is one answer to a question concerning writing. I love variety in format, style, even print. (I just blogged about it.)

I think you should write the way you write, each individual story coming as it does with its own inherent "personality", layers, or whatever. To demand that one way or the other signifies good or bad or useful or elegant writing is restrictive to the style of creative types. You have your own voice, BC, and if it decides to speak in symbolism, let those who can glean them be satisfied and let those who cannot, or choose not to, be entertained.

I think a writer who specifically includes them to either tantalize or confound readers eliminates the infusion of the Holy Spirit's touch to a Christian's writing endeavors.

Two Sisters said...

Like Nicole, I'm not one to suggest there is only one way. Recently I read Jeffrey Overstreet's book, Auralia's Colors. It's packed with religious allegory, but it doesn't mention God directly at all. Maybe some won't ever notice. Maybe some won't ever notice that The Chronicles of Narnia is packed with Christian symbolism. Is that bad? No, I don't agree it is.

Allegory and symbolism is a form of art. I feel very strongly about this, of course, because my books are also not written with an agenda in mind. If it has a Christian world view, and many of the characters do, it's because it's my world view. I suppose if I was Jewish, I'd be proned to a Jewish world view in my books.

So... I think the answer lies inside each writer and in each reader. I love allegory. I find it most of the time and it fills me. I'm a different person. But I read Brandilyn's books because they thrill me and because they are free from immorality that goes unpunished.

One size doesn't fit all. Jesus does fit all, but his ways are mysterious and I wouldn't want to see that censored in the industry. And I don't think it will be either.

This is a Great topic, Brandilyn. Good thoughts from everybody and it's important to think about. We need to ask ourselves, what is our goal and what does God want us to do with our writing?

Chawna Schroeder said...

This especially concerns me, since I write in a genre heavily dependent on allegory and symbolism. So here are my current thoughts on the topic (very long):

In this blog, I see three main objections to allegory: 1.Blind eyes have trouble discerning, and therefore will find allegory confusing. 2.Jesus explained his parables. 3.Christ’s parables were not an example for his/her own writing.

Yes, blind eyes have trouble discerning, but is that all bad? If they see only in part, maybe they will be tantalized to learn of and understand the whole. Besides, cannot God open the eyes of the blind? Might he not use the allegory or symbolism to provide the key to understand John 3:16? And if the eyes are truly blind—how can they be confused by what you never see? And at worst, when they finish the story, there will be a gut feeling that they missed something—which will spur them to go back and read your book again. How can that be a bad thing?

And yes, Jesus explained some of his parables. But many are left unexplained in Scripture. After all, that is part of the work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:13, I Corinthians 2:6-16). Nor were his stories for "a great part" of his audience, but for a select few.

Finally, yes, this is probably not the model for this writer. But does that mean it cannot be a model for others? Rather, I think there should be a balance. No, not every book should have layer after layer of symbolism, but neither should every book lack any symbolism.

And allegory does have advantages:

1) Allegory stretches and enriches those who do get it.

2)Symbolism can deepen the tapestry of the writing, even if the readers don’t get it all. And it is amazing how smart people can be, if given the chance. How often do readers fail to rise to the great heights of imagination and literacy because we writers do not dare them to at least try?

3) Allegory/symbolism sneaks truth in the back door. The complaint that readers are blind and won’t get it is actually part of the point. Allegorical writers don’t want everyone to get it—at least not immediately. Rather, they want the story to lodge in the heart and break out later unexpectedly when the connections are made, whether through personal experience, someone explaining the book, or a connection made with another story/sermon/song.

So should you, Brandilyn, or any else write with allegory? There is no clear answer. But here are three things I would consider:

What’s your genre? Symbolism is more likely to be missed in genres where it’s not commonly found, such as in romances or thrillers. But in other genres, like fantasy or literary work, symbolism is not only commonly found, but it is also expected by the readers. In those cases, if you don’t put it in, the readers will put it in for you.

What’s your target market? Seekers and baby Christians need things explained clearly. But more mature Christians steeped in Scripture are more likely to spot Biblical allusions and will relish the deeper parallels to real life.

Do you care if only a few “get” it? Because some will get it and some won’t. If it bothers you that not everyone will see your brilliant parallels, skip the allegory; you’ll only be disappointed. But if you don’t care, go ahead. It’ll likely deepen your work, and some will appreciate the extra lengths you’ve gone through.

That, of course, brings me to how allegory should be written (coming from the perspective of an unpublished sci-fi/fantasy writer):

1) Don’t overload it. The main story should be able to stand on its own. Then you don’t have to worry about people being confused by the allegory, because they’ll glance over it in their enjoyment of the main story. But if the allegory becomes so heavy it bogs down the story—then you have a major problem.

2) Provide a key. Christ did not explain every parable, but often provided a hint: “The kingdom of heaven is like…” He gives us the starting point, but leaves us to draw the parallels.

3) You must write a great story, one you can enjoy over and over again. That’s why C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia work so well. A child can hear them and enjoy the story, while the parent discovers that whole second story. In fact, you often reread allegories for the purpose of understanding that allegory better. But the story must be good enough to reread and to lodge in the heart so that when the key is provided, the story is still there to be unlocked.

In short, I think allegory is like a connect-the-dots within a picture. To the uninitiated, the dots are only a part of the overall picture. To the untrained, they’ll figure it out if provided a key. To the trained, they can look and see the connect-the-dots picture without even needing to draw the lines. And sometimes even the trained will overlook the dots at first because the main picture is so detailed. But when life happens, the reader will see the parallels, thoughts will click, and the dots will connect.

And isn’t that our goal with our readers—whether or not our writing is allegorical?

Karen said...

Brandilyn, don't force the symbolism. Your writing flows with rich plot and wonderful characters and the Christian message is there because that is your perspective. I took Violet Dawn with me on our recent cruise in Asia and left it behind in the paperback swap pile. I figured James Patterson could move over and let BC have some room on those lounge chairs.

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

I love Chawna's response, Brandilyn.

In addition, I'd say to your writer friend that Jesus' parables were not allegories. An allegory maintains a one-to-one correspondence of the imaginative with the real. Jesus often told stories to make a particular point, but some of the details didn't directly relate to what is actual.

The parable of the unjust judge and the persistent widow comes to mind. The point was to teach persistence in prayer, but clearly God is not an unjust judge.

Too much of an effort to write actual allegory can make a story seem forced. But using types and symbols can provide treasure for those who care to mine for it.

That's the richness of layered writing, in my opinion--it can be enjoyed at different levels and more than once.

Also, I'd say to your friend that Jesus did not explain all his parables nor did he always share them with only a few. Sometimes he put them right out there for the crowds. In fact, my theory is, some of the people gathered around Him because they wanted to be entertained, just as some came to eat and some came to be healed. Also, because the Pharisees UNDERSTOOD some of His symbols, they wanted to crucify Him. And when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they understood that He was speaking about them.

By the way, did you catch that your writer friend used symbolic language in making her point? She refers to "blind eyes" though she doesn't mean physically blind. Symbolism is a part of how we think. It allows for suggestion and often demonstrates the truth of a thing far more than the unadorned statement. It is why we are to "show" so often rather than telling. Symbolism "shows" by creating a comparison that reveals truth in a new way.

I could go on and on, but ... mayhaps I'll blog on the subject instead!