Two Stories About Bells

Vertigo 02One thing you learn in writing stories is that certain objects have a mysterious and almost magnetic power that defies words. Castles, swords, rings, goblets, buried treasure—the appearance of any one of these in a story is like a radiant stone that vibrates with its own intensity. Perhaps that’s why I became Catholic, because as a storyteller I was naturally drawn to a religion that invests material things with sacramental power: holy water; crosses; bells, books, and candles.

 

Bell towers have fascinated me ever since I saw the movie Vertigo when I was nine or ten years old. Recently voted the greatest film of all time in the once-a-decade Sight & Sound poll, Vertigo tells the story of a retired detective (James Stewart) hired to trail a young woman (Kim Novak) who may be possessed by the ghost of a long-dead ancestor. He pursues her to an old Spanish mission, the Mission San Juan Batista, where, at the very top of the bell tower, tragedy strikes. And then strikes again.

 

The understated use of Hispanic and southwestern folklore in this movie slowly worked its way into my brain, taking root in dark corners. During my first couple of months at Southwestern University, ten years ago this summer, I was enchanted by the beige limestone, the rounded-arch doorways, the old chapel at the heart of campus with a door leading up to the tower, a door that was only unlocked on the rarest of occasions. I remember being struck with a sense of the history of the place.

 

It was there that I had the idea to write a series of children’s books, books that would draw on the cultures and legends of the Celts (my ancestors) and the Southwest (my adopted home). This summer in going back and rereading some of the folklore and mythology of England I’ve been struck by how many stories center around the ringing of bells. In the days before telephones and wireless, sometimes the cathedral bell was the only means of communication between one town and another, or between the church and those in peril on the ocean’s dark waters.

 

One such story from County Surrey tells of a man, Neville Audley, who was captured fighting on the wrong side during the long-ago War of the Roses. Arrested and sentenced to die when the curfew bell tolled on the next night at Chertsey Abbey, he realized that the only hope of being spared was to obtain a pardon from the king.

 

Neville conferred with his girlfriend, Blanche Heriot, and their mutual friend Herrick. Herrick agreed to ride towards London to seek pardon. But on the next day, with only five minutes left before the bell tolled, Herrick was seen flying towards the town from half a mile away—still too far away to save Audley’s life.

 

The minutes passed. The townsfolk awaited the tolling of the bell. But the bell did not ring.

 

Just as Herrick arrived in town, the sexton, accompanied by soldiers, went up into the tower to investigate. There they found Blanche Heriot, dashed against the bell and frame but still clinging to the clapper with a tenacity born of desperation. Luckily she had hung there just long enough to save her beloved, who was spared from death by the king’s timely pardon. The two were married shortly afterwards.

 

Another story with a less happy ending is told of the tenor bell of Burgh le Marsh church. The people of Burgh le Marsh once made a living off the debris of doomed ships, lighting the beacon on Marsh Hill to lure poor sailors to their deaths. Once the sailors were all drowned and the weather had calmed, the townsfolk would scramble ashore to loot the broken vessels.

 

As the story goes, in 1629 the Mary Rose was sailing from Leith, Scotland along the Lincolnshire coast on its way to Flanders. A storm began to gather. The wind howled and the rains beat against the ship, while the people of Burgh watched from the shore with growing excitement.

 

But not everyone was pleased by the buffeting of the storm-tossed ship. The elderly sexton Guymer, when he learned what was being planned, begged them not to light the beacon. No one listened.

 

A crowd made its way towards Marsh Hill and the beacon was lit. Captain Frohock, seeing what he mistook for a lighthouse, called out to his men that they were safe. The crew turned the ship in the direction of the light.

 

Back on shore, desperate to avoid the collision that was imminent, Guymer ran towards the church. Ascending to the top of the bell tower, he grabbed the rope and rang the bell with all the strength he could muster. Captain Frohock, realizing how close he was to shore and certain death, ordered the Mary Rose back to sea, away from the treacherous sands.

 

Enraged by the tolling of the bell, the townspeople stormed into the church. Breaking down the belfry door, they found Guymer, still clinging to the rope, his dead body swaying to and fro. His heart had burst open from exhaustion.

 

When Captain Frohock returned to the village a year later and learned what had happened, he bought an acre of land known as “Bell String Acre.” He ordered that rent from the land be used to buy a silken rope for the bell. It’s said that he married the sexton’s daughter.

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“One More Dawn, One More Day”: 3 Moments of Storytelling Brilliance

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A good story, whether in the form of a song, novel, TV series, or movie, should give the illusion that you’re experiencing something new and unprecedented. There’s a moment near the end of the story where the heroes find themselves in a unique situation facing extraordinary challenges, and the hair on the back of our necks stands on end because we know we’re witnessing the culmination of a series of choices, and if any of those choices had been different, this moment would never happened.

It’s thrilling. It gives us a rush because we know life is like that. There’s a grandeur that invests even the smallest moments because we have a dim appreciation of what it took to get here.

The following are three of my favorite storytelling moments across all media, moments where a protagonist revealed his or her true quality and the brilliance of the narrative mechanisms on display were like nothing I had seen before.
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“I made a promise, Mr. Frodo”: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

With all the computer-effects wizardry and operatic spectacle of the later films, it can be easy to forget the promise of Peter Jackson’s first foray into Middle Earth, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The genius of the first movie (and, to a lesser extent, The Two Towers) is that they somehow married the scale of an epic fantasy story with the intimacy of a small character drama. This was never more apparent than in the under-stated denouement of Fellowship, in which human warrior Boromir dies protecting two Hobbits after nearly betraying Ring-bearer Frodo Baggins. Frodo makes his escape by boat, thinking to finish the journey alone. But his gardener Sam Gamgee has other plans, and it’s in showing how the two of them end up together that the films have one of their best moments.

 

The Death of Krishna: The Mahabharata (1989)

The ancient Indian epic The Mahabharata, the longest poem ever written (two million words in 17 volumes), has a cast so large and a story so convoluted it rivals the Lord of the Rings, featuring demons, gods, weird monsters, vengeful reincarnations, and a magical weapon with the destructive capacity to annihilate an entire planet. But the narrative thread holding the story together (and keeping it from buckling under its own weight) is the conflict between the Kauravas and Pandavas, two halves of one family who are determined to exterminate each other.

Hovering in the background of this out-of-control family quarrel is the mysterious figure of Krishna, who for much of the story seems to be just another member of the family (albeit one who is revered by all parties), but who reveals himself, in the poem’s most famous set piece, to be more than they had ever guessed. Naturally the question arises, “If you are a god, why can’t you stop this massacre?”

Peter Brooks’ five-hour 1989 film The Mahabharata plays up the more enigmatic aspects of Krishna’s character, suggesting that perhaps there’s a more sinister agenda behind his ostensible attempts at peace-making. But the film’s best moment comes at the end when Krishna, wounded and dying, reveals that he’s just as confused and vulnerable as anyone else in the story. A young boy asks him, “Krishna, tell me quickly: why all your tricks and your bad directions?” Krishna responds with his last words: “I fought against terrible powers, and I did what I could.”

 

“One Day More”: Les Miserables (the Musical)

Victor Hugo’s sprawling, relentlessly poetic 1,400 page novel Les Miserables, which tells the story of an 1832 student uprising in Paris, boasts some of the most brilliant character arcs in literature. (The culmination of the longstanding feud between Javert, the police inspector, and Jean Valjean, the criminal-turned-mayor whom he has hunted for twenty years, deserves its own place on this list).

The musical Les Miserables takes all this plot and condenses it into a lyrical and at times devastating two-and-a-half-hour saga of war, vengeance, grace, redemption, and romance. The entire last half of the story functions as a series of climaxes. And while the tear-inducing lament of Marius on re-visiting the barricades where his friends met their grisly end is probably the emotional high point of the play, in terms of sheer narrative power, praise is owed to the entire sequence where Marius, Cosette, Eponine, and their love triangle is introduced, and especially the song “One Day More,” which takes the emotional journeys of ALL the characters, crystallizes them into a few simple verses and chorus, and reveals that in spite of their many conflicts, our heroes (and villains) have far more in common than they would ever admit.

 

What Frozen Taught Me About How to Read the Bible

Elsa          Frozen is one of those movies that stay with you. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I watched it again last week. Like most people I could empathize with Elsa’s longing to disappear into the mountains, away from friends and family, free of their rules and expectations, free to quit pretending, to be me. It’s a universal feeling, one that I think we’ve all felt.

 

            I love the second verse especially:

 

            It’s funny how some distance

            Makes everything seem small

            And the fears that once controlled me

            Can’t get to me at all

           

            It’s time to see what I can do

            To test the limits and break through

            No right, no wrong, no rules for me

            I’m free!

 

            There’s something so stirring about seeing a heroine growing in confidence, casting off the constraints that have bound her and soaring through wind and sky. Haven’t you ever felt that calling, that longing to forget what everyone else tells you you have to be and just be what you have to be?

 

            And yet I don’t for a moment think the writers fully endorse Elsa’s perspective. I got to wondering how they made Frozen and was surprised to learn that initially Elsa was supposed to be the villain. But when Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez sat down and started writing “Let It Go,” they began trying to imagine what it would be like to be her, to carry her emotional burdens: “this concept of letting out who she is, that she’s kept to herself for so long, and she’s alone and free, but then the sadness of the fact that the last moment is she’s alone. It’s not a perfect thing, but it’s powerful.”

 

            Elsa’s self-imposed isolation is hurtful to her sister and ruinous to the kingdom. The writers aren’t encouraging this, as is clear by the end of the movie. “Let It Go” comes at a place in the movie where the heroine is just beginning her emotional journey, hurt and confused but filled with a longing to transcend her meager surroundings and be confident and powerful. But to understand what the movie thinks about all this, we have to follow that emotional journey all the way to the end.

 

            It’s a precarious balance, but I think the writers got it mostly right. Because we could so easily say, “Elsa was wrong to feel that way!” But the truth is, while her feelings may not always be what we’d want them to be, what they “should”be, they’re a part of the human experience, and that’s beautiful.

 

            We have grace for Elsa because she’s so human. And I wish we could read the Bible in the same way we watch Frozen.

 

            So many people have tried to argue with me about the meaning of the Scriptures. You see, they don’t think I take the Bible seriously enough because I have reservations about some of the scarier passages in the Old Testament, the ones about killing children (Ps. 137:9) or stoning women who are raped (Deut. 22:23-25) or slaughtering whole nations. These are the ones they demand I believe in. “If you don’t believe the whole Word of God,” they insist, “you’re a false teacher!”

 

            And it raises some interesting questions, like: Why these passages? Why does no one ever demand a “literal reading” of, “Love your enemies,” or, “If you forgive others, you will be forgiven”? Why are you making, “Destroy all that they have, and do not spare them” the hill that you die on? What does that say about you?

 

            The truth is, like Frozen, the Bible has some very human elements. Human writers and human heroes expressed things that are often not appropriate. They did not always hear God correctly, and their image of God was not always accurate. Because the Bible is a story, and in order to grasp its full meaning you have to read it all the way to the end. There’s a twist at the end of the story, and the twist is Jesus.

 

            The Psalmist said, “Happy is the one who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks.”

 

            Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.”

 

            Moses said, “You shall conquer them and utterly destroy them.”

 

            Jesus said, “Put away your sword.”

 

            David prayed, “Let there be none to extend mercy.”

 

            Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them.”

 

            In the same way our knowledge of Hans, Anna’s fiancé, is dramatically altered by his self-revelation at the end of Frozen, the Israelites’ perception of God is dramatically altered by the self-revelation of Jesus.

 

           In the first case, the one we had trusted turned out to be a villain and deceiver.

 

           In the second, the one we had feared turned out to be gentle and good.

 

           And that’s really the message of the whole Bible: we thought God was like this; but all along, he was really like this.

 

           We thought God was proud and lofty. But he was meek and lowly.

 

           We thought he would execute vengeance. But he himself was executed.

 

           We thought he would take up the sword and kill. But he took up the cross and died.

 

          It’s the greatest of all surprises—a twist like no other.

 

            But we’ll never grasp what it means unless we read to the end. You can cut up the Bible into pieces and make it say whatever you want, just as you can take “Let It Go” out of Frozen and make a compelling argument for isolation and selfishness. But the true heart of the story is found in its closing scenes, in sacrifices made and love rekindled.

Story Structure in Harry Potter

Harry_Potter_wandI read this great series of articles on the Write like Rowling website.

 

It’s based on the concepts presented in Larry Brooks’ book, Story Engineering.

 

In the section on story structure, Brooks says that in order to be successful, a story needs to have each of these five pivots:

 

  1. The first plot point, when the hero receives her marching orders and sets out on her journey

 

  1. The first pinch point, when the hero is given a reminder of the nature and power of the antagonistic forces arrayed against her

 

  1. The mid-point, when a crucial piece of information is discovered

 

  1. The second pinch point, which again reminds the hero of the antagonistic forces

 

  1. and the second plot point, the final injection of new information into the story that gives the book a kind of forward momentum as it speeds towards the end.

 

Brooks even tells us at what percentage of the way through the book each of these pivots needs to make its appearance.

 

The first plot point occurs 25 percent of the way through the story;

 

the first pinch point occurs 3/8ths of the way through the story;

 

the midpoint occurs at the midpoint;

 

the second pinch point occurs 5/8ths of the way through the story;

 

and the second plot point occurs 75 percent of the way through the story.

 

Interestingly, in Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone, Rowling lands four of these five pivots on the exact page they need to be on according to Brooks’ model of story structure (he excludes the prologue as not being part of the main plot). C. S. Plocher on the Write like Rowling website gives us a rundown:

 

Harry boards the Hogwarts Express on page 90 of the 259-page plot;

 

He gets his first glimpse of Snape (and, even more crucially, Quirrell’s turban) on page 126;

 

He realizes who has the Philosopher’s Stone at the end of chapter 9, exactly halfway through the book;

 

He catches Snape with a bloody leg 5/8ths of the way through the book.

 

The only exception is the final plot point (Harry realizing that Dumbledore has departed for London and the stone is going to be stolen), which is 25 pages later than it would normally be because Rowling is setting up a seven-volume fantasy series and has a lot of world-building to do. (Moreover, I would argue that the true second pinch point in the first novel is the scene with the unicorn in the Forbidden Forest).

 

So if I made it my goal to write a 300-page book:

 

the first plot point would occur on or around page 60;

 

the first pinch point would occur on page 113;

 

the mid-point would occur on page 150;

 

the second pinch point would occur on page 188;

 

and the final plot point would occur on page 225 (or perhaps a bit later in a story of this scope).

 

I have this crazy dream to write a novel according to a strict formula. In the past I always thought I could free-wheel it; but I’m realizing, I really love formulaic writing. It’s so structured. I love following the rules. I love learning the science and craft of storytelling.