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04:47 pm: Wright’s Writing Corner: Good vs. Evil – Part One

For some time now, I have been thinking of a post on writing about good and evil. Can good be interesting? What are the pitfalls people run into when designing villains. This sort of thing. Most likely, it will be in three parts—Writing About Good Settings, Writing About Good Characters, and Writing About Evil.

Here is the first:
 
 

photo by Prince Jvstin

 
 

Must Good Be Dull? – Part One: Setting

 

“I want to go to Hell when I die. Heaven is so boring.’

Very few sentences annoy me more than the one above. I have actually heard real people say this. The first time was in high school, but I have since heard adults express the same idea.

What would make a person prefer pain and suffering to peace and perfection? (Of course, these folks are not picturing pain and suffering. They are picturing sinners having a good time sinning together.) Having contemplated this at length, I have come to the conclusion it is due to a lack of imagination. They cannot picture a nice place that is interesting, so they would prefer to be tortured and suffer for eternity.

Geesh!

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In the defense of the future moaners in the pit of flames, it is difficult to describe a place without pain and sorrow and make it sound interesting. Descriptions of Heaven usually go something like this: “And then we walked through the door. Beyond, everything was beautiful and nice. It was idyllic and grand and wonderful and joyous. And perfect. Oh, the joy! Did I mention perfect? Even nicer than that. For the rest of eternity, we were all as happy as clams.” Not really something that engages the imagination.

But not being able to describe it so that it sounds interesting is not the same as it not being interesting.

I learned this in a roleplaying game. Many years ago, our characters discovered the World of the Imagination. It was a fascinating place filled with Greek heroes who had prospered instead of coming to their tragic Greek end. It was also especially conducive to creative works. Our characters piled in with great enthusiasm, all eager to create great works of art.

Now, as I writer, I can assure you that writing is very interesting. I love writing. I look forward to doing it. I think about it. I long for writing time. I am fascinated by the process of writing. But what I learned that day was that the act of writing and the act of describing somebody who is writing are not the same thing:

“Okay, Moderator. This is going to be great! My character writes a great work! Then, I write another one! Um…then, I write another one. Then, I write a…zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.”

Very boring.

Is writing boring? No! It is quite exciting. One thinks about what to say. One rejoices when the plotlines unexpectedly come together. One bangs a hole through the wall with one’s head when the words refuse to cooperate. One fights the temptation to surf/play games/read email or the news. One enjoys the flow of creativity that makes one feel active and alive. One “burns with the bliss and suffers the sorrows” of one’s characters lives.

But is this exciting to describe to someone else? Hardly. Even other writers are often bored, as is witnessed by this conversation overheard at the Wright Household:

Me: “Hey, Handsome, you’re home. I wrote a whole chapter today!”

John: “Mm. That’s nice, Dear. My day at work sucked. My computer crashed 375 times and a rabid turtle bit my ear.” *

Whose conversation was the more interesting?.

True, a good author could probably make writing sound interesting, but doing so takes talent. Usually, to do so, the author would probably dramatize the writing process by showing the author struggling with a problem

But is writing only enjoyable on days when I must struggle to overcome a problem? Not at all.

In fact, quite the opposite. The best writing days are often the ones where nothing goes wrong, days when I get to enjoy the act of writing, that wonderful, fulfilling feeling of ideas flowing like a fountain from God (or the Muse or whatever) to my thoughts, through my fingers, to the paper. This type of day is the best of all to experience and the hardest to make interesting on paper.

About now, you are probably asking yourself: “What does this have to do with Heaven?” If Heaven were a place where the things people did were as enjoyable as writing is for a writer, it would be a very wonderful place indeed.

But it might not that enjoyable to read about.

So, our challenge is: how can we make Heaven sound interesting enough that that children will not grow up to choose lives of vice, decadence and crime sheerly because they feel Hell would be more interesting. (Pound your foot with a hammer, Kid, and tell me how much interesting that is. Now do that another hundred, million billion times. Having fun yet? Uh huh.)

So, what do we do?

I have spent a great deal of time thinking about this. I hope with time to come up with more ideas on how to write about Heaven and make it interesting, but so far, I have come up with two ideas.
 
 

1) Metaphors – If we cannot make Heaven sound intriguing by describing it directly, then how about comparing it to things that do sound intriguing.

We cannot make a person picture something peaceful and perfect as desirable just by just saying, “It was peaceful and perfect.” But we can take something that we do know, something concrete and real to us, and compare Heaven to this thing.

Haven’t we all had moments of grace, moments of bliss? What images come to mind when we remember them? If we take these images—ideas that do fill us with hope or with longing—and tie them to our image of Heaven. Then, Heaven can become a place that we can experience emotionally, even if we cannot visualize it.

I tried this once in Prospero In Hell. Sadly, the scene is too long to go here. So here, instead, as an example, is my favorite scene of this type from Prospero In Hell. Only in this version, I do it backward, likening not being in Heaven to something negative:

“Imagine you went to live in a house that looked a great deal like your father’s mansion, only nothing was ever quite right. The doors would not close properly. The well did not work. The servants were rude. The walls were moldy. The halls smelled of rotting fruit, and no matter how many logs you put on the fire, you were always cold.

“Nor can you ever grow used to this new house, precisely because it reminds you so much of your old home. You cannot see the blighted rose without recalling the beauty of your old gardens. You cannot walk the corridors without its layout bringing to mind the house you loved. You cannot look through the dingy windows at the overcast sky without remembering the glorious skies above the mansion of your youth. Everything you see makes you heartsick for the original, of which this current place is but a dark reflection. That is what it is like to remember Heaven and dwell on earth.”

 
 
2) Nature Descriptions – every description of Heaven I have ever read has made my eyes glaze over. And yet, I have read descriptions of nature, of mountains and rivers and forest, that have trembled with beauty and completely held my attention. Many nature descriptions include only things that one might find in paradise. So why are they so much more vivid?

Look at this excerpt from The Mountains of California by John Muir (1894)

Along its eastern margin rises the mighty Sierra, miles in height, reposing like a smooth, cumulous cloud in the sunny sky, and so gloriously colored, and so luminous, it seems to be not clothed with light, but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city. Along the top, and extending a good way down, you see a pale, pearl-gray belt of snow; and below it a belt of blue and dark purple, marking the extension of the forests; and along the base of the range a broad belt of rose-purple and yellow, where lie the miner’s gold-fields and the foot-hill gardens. All these colored belts blending smoothly make a wall of light ineffably fine, and as beautiful as a rainbow, yet firm as adamant.

…In early spring, say from February to April, the whole of this foot-hill belt is a paradise of bees and flowers. Refreshing rains then fall freely, … and the sunshine is balmy and delightful.

What is it that makes descriptions of nature breathtaking, but descriptions of Heaven boring? Could it be the specifics? Whatever it is, if a description of a craggy peak glistening beneath the sun can be dynamic, so can a description of the most beautiful place in existence.

In conclusion, with metaphor and by learning the tricks of nature writers, we may be able to lend majesty and wonder to otherwise static descriptions of Heaven.

What other ideas or techniques have the rest of you seen/thought of that might aid us in saving the unimaginative from an eternity of fire and hammers strikes?
 
 
Next week: Must Good Be Dull – Part Two: Saving Deadly Dull Do-Right
 
 
 
 

* I am sorry to say that this is not a realistic example of a conversation at the Wright Household. The real conversation sounds more like this:

Me: “I wrote a whole chapter today”

John: “My day at work sucked. My computer crashed 562 times and a rabid turtle clamped on my ear so hard it had to be removed by a Boy Scout extraction team.”

Me (wondering if he even heard me. Could I have forgotten to vocalize? Like the opposite problem to what happens to Austin Powers when he has no inner monologue?): “That’s the third rabid turtle this week! Can’t your office do anything to stop this?”

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Originally posted to Welcome to Arhyalon. (link)

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[User Picture]
From:juliet_winters
Date:September 22nd, 2010 10:01 pm (UTC)
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Show them pain they can relate to and peace as its counterpoint. Two Christian authors who do this effectively (without advertising their religion overtly) are Madeline L'Engle and Katherine Paterson.

In A Wrinkle in Time there is EVIL just as surely as there is good. Meg is adroit enough to be able to sense it and brave enough to overcome it at great cost.

The Great Gilly Hopkins (stupidly banned) shows a child living in an earthly hell who finally finds peace by the stubborn efforts of a religious woman. Gilly sins a lot but she finds her strength when she learns to trust someone who shows her the face of Christ. None of this is said in so many words. But Gilly has helped heal a lot broken children.

Madeline L'Engle was a church librarian and Katherine Paterson was a minister's wife as well as a missionary kid. Their faith was always important to them but it may not have been laid out with all the ruffles and flourishes.
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From:juliet_winters
Date:September 22nd, 2010 11:29 pm (UTC)
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As to setting, it's the state of mind that matters. Real wilderness can be terrifying as can the most perfect house in the world. Likewise a completely artificial setting or a slovenly cottage could be perfect retreats to a child--as long as there is love and safety.
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 23rd, 2010 02:43 am (UTC)
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I was just thinking that if I found out that the Presidentials in the White Mountains in NY was actually heaven, I'd believe it. There are few more beautiful places on earth. And I've read such beautiful descriptions of them. It was that that made me think that the same kind of writing could be used to evoke a sense of a heavenly place worth visiting.
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 23rd, 2010 02:39 am (UTC)
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Next week I'm planning to talk about characters...a lot of this stuff weighs into that.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:September 23rd, 2010 12:14 am (UTC)

Boring Heaven

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Hear, hear! I think you've hit an excellent distinction. Doing and reading about others doing is not the same thing. And the more wonderful something is, the harder it is to really convey to another person outside the experience. Try being in love. It's fabulous! But lovers are famously some of the most boring people to be around or listen to. Ditto new mothers. (No ma'am. I do not care to hear stories of your child's poop. Thank you all the same.)

Also, as I read your post, I thought about the descriptions of heaven in the Old and New Testaments. They sound frankly goofy to most modern readers. But to the readers of the time, they must have been mind blowing. Imagine a city without walls. Boring to us, but to people living in a state of near constant city-state warfare that image represents a fantasy of peace and prosperity. I never really understood the "streams of living water" images on a visceral level until I moved to southern California. So if heaven is a place of absolute fulfillment, without being satieted or bored we need images that speak to those desires in modern ears. What would that look like? What do we lack or fear that heaven could fulfill?
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:September 23rd, 2010 02:46 am (UTC)

Re: Boring Heaven

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I've read descriptions of near death experiences that mentioned living water. I always thought it sounded cool.

That's a good question, though, what would the modern Heaven have that we lack? (A modern update, kind of like having Apollo show up driving the sun convertable in the Percy Jackson books.)

I know some people would say quiet...a place where you don't hear road noise. I wonder what else.
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From:annafirtree
Date:September 23rd, 2010 01:34 am (UTC)
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I've always thought that the popular notion of heaven being a place where we sit on clouds and have wings and maybe sing to God is quite lacking.

Compare that to the description in Revelation 21, of a city made of pure gold, with walls that are jasper, with foundation stones of sapphire, topaz, emerald, amethyst, and other precious and beautiful stones. The twelve gates, three facing each of the four cardinal directions, are each made of a single pearl and inscribed with the name of one of the twelve tribes of Israel.

That's a description I could totally picture being in some SFF book. The hero, who had never been out of his town - population 20 - before, walked into the great city, awed by the splendour of the single-pearl gates, the walls with stones so rare he had never heard of some of them before, the streets made of gold.
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 23rd, 2010 02:47 am (UTC)
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One thing I like about the Revelations description is that it sounds a lot like places people have seen in Near-Death Visions...but not so close that it seems as if it was copied, just as if it came from the same archetects.

I've often thought that the Bible would make a great SF story.
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From:annafirtree
Date:September 24th, 2010 12:56 am (UTC)
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SF stories need one (or possibly two) main characters, whereas the Bible tells the story of all mankind. Other than that, it would totally work. :)
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 24th, 2010 01:29 am (UTC)
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I realized after I wrote it that I had said Bible. I meant New Testament...Jesus's story.
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From:annafirtree
Date:September 24th, 2010 03:59 am (UTC)
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Yes, but it would be tough to cast Jesus as a good main character. Main characters usually need flaws so that they can come to some key realization, some change about themselves, at the climax of the book. Jesus is rather lacking in the whole "flaws" department. :)
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 24th, 2010 12:01 pm (UTC)
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LOL That's one of the things I intend to talk about next week.

I figured it would be from Peter's point of view.
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From:annafirtree
Date:September 24th, 2010 08:25 pm (UTC)
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Hmm. Yes, I could see that working.
(no subject) - (Anonymous)
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From:partywhipple
Date:September 23rd, 2010 04:33 pm (UTC)

Re: Customized Term Papers

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You should delete this spam.
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 23rd, 2010 04:55 pm (UTC)

Re: Customized Term Papers

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Done.
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From:cdenmier
Date:September 23rd, 2010 01:11 pm (UTC)

Lack of Conflict?

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Your quote from the Prospero book works so well because it describes heaven as we see it now: "through a glass, darkly." We see only reflections, shadows. We see it in what is lacking here. It's also why the descriptions nature work for us: for many, the wonders of nature are the height of beauty that we can know in this world. Anything greater becomes like music turned up way, way too loud. It becomes a white noise in our minds. We revert, out of habit, to the bland concepts of perfection and joy. We all pine for perfect beauty and joy and never find it here, not totally...so we cannot crisply imagine what it means to possess it any more than folks in a two-dimensional world can close their eyes and rawly visualize a cube.

Heaven is much more of a final destination, not a story-long setting, because we see it as a place without that crucial element of storytelling: conflict. Perhaps it would help to remember that, at least from a Christian standpoint, heaven is not yet a place without conflict. Internally it is, but not externally. Heaven is at war with hell, so to speak; a spiritual war rages around us between God (and His angels and His saints) and the devil, the flesh and the world. Heaven cannot be invaded nor can those there be wounded, but souls here that are meant to go there can die forever and heaven is fighting on their behalf. Maybe this can make it a more interesting place: a place of action, not inaction.
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From:arhyalon
Date:September 23rd, 2010 02:43 pm (UTC)

Re: Lack of Conflict?

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That was really beautifully put!

You put your finger on the thing I figured out that I hope to use when I write about a heavenly location. (Not heaven/heaven per se, but close) I figured I could have the conflict of the people there disagreeing about how they want to carrying out the war below. If different folks had different advice/support, etc for the main characters, I figure I could make it interesting without making it innately conflict driven in and of itself.

;-)
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:September 23rd, 2010 04:59 pm (UTC)

Re: glimpse

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Ah...the white mountains! ;-)

>and perhaps the characters might model the chief characteristic, love, as they work through the question....unlike what we um have here.

Defintely. I think their whole approach would be different from ours. More concerned with free will and choices, for one thing. (ie...with the main characters using their free will to make choices.)

And thanks!

Edited at 2010-09-23 04:59 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
From:gingersea
Date:September 28th, 2010 05:03 pm (UTC)
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Maybe part of the problem is not the fact that you're trying to describe Heaven per se, but that you're trying to write description. And as Donald Maass says, even description, if it is to be good description, should embody some tension or conflict (perhaps in the POV character's emotions). And so the further problem becomes: Why do you want to describe Heaven? Surely the book is not all about Life in Heaven--is it? Surely you want to describe Heaven while your POV character is still dealing with some problem or issue. Bring the issue into the description, then, however subtly! I think you're really on the right track with your excerpt from Prospero in Hell.
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