by Anne Hamilton
Man overboard! I was planning to write a fourth post in this series on narrative hooks, but I decided to abandon ship. Still I’m valiantly striving to keep my nautical metaphor.
The plan went awry after reading a fascinating section in Lisa Cron’s book Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. That’s the book which explains how the brain is wired to interact with storylines and gives you clues about how to write in an engaging, compelling way.
Cron talks about conflict. The Big C. It should go without saying that conflict, conflict, and still more escalating conflict is the basis of western literature (though not necessarily of eastern — if ever you’ve tried to make sense of a Japanese novel or a manga series, you’ll know that evocation of mood is of ultimate significance there). Still, conflict is often missing in the manuscripts I assess. Increasingly it’s missing in books I’m recommended, particularly by friends of self–published authors.
Cron explains why: the reader craves conflict situations in a story because this is a simulated learning experience for the brain. In real life, however, most of us hate conflict. So many authors can’t bring themselves to put their fictional darlings through the wringer.
However, this wasn’t what intrigued me. Cron mentions eight different types of fictional conflict that the brain craves according to research in neuroscience. The last one made me sit back in my chair and think hard. It’s this: The antagonist vs mercy.
The opportunities for Christian writing here are just fantastic, the potential enormous. The average person wants to know when to exercise mercy and one of the things a reader desires in a book is a template for that process. And by template I mean a thoughtful exploration of forgiveness that does not trivialise the wounding. Often Christian novels present forgiveness in a way that seems so unbelievable it’s almost trite. The heroine is suffused by peace and the struggle is over.
Do we do anyone any favours by creating idealised ‘too good to be true’ Christian characters? Yep, we’ve fallen into the trap Cron identifies: as authors we want to minimise conflict for our darlings.
Yet, have you taken a look at the book of Acts lately? Peter might have taken some huge leaps forward but he was still fallible and more than a touch hypocritical. Paul was so unforgiving he had a huge row with Barnabas and they split up.
In our rush to wind up the story with a happy–ever–after of forgiveness and mercy, it’s important not to forget truth and justice. The mercy conflict in Christian terms is the perennial and age–old question of how those two opposites — justice and mercy — can both simultaneously be satisfied. Only a story wrestling with these ancient questions can ever truly hope to satisfy what both our brains and our hearts crave.
Anne Hamilton is the author of the award–winning children’s fantasy, Many–Coloured Realm. She’s just checked the final word count of her forthcoming children’s fantasy Daystar: The Days are Numbered Book 1 to make sure it really is 77,777 words long and also to be certain the mercy conflict is quite prominently featured.