Isaiah’s Rules for Writers (1)

In State of the Union, I suggested that Isaiah, in chapter 61, while prophesying the ministry of Jesus, may have also offered career advice to us writers.

Suppose he did, and suppose a writer who decides to follow the prophet’s advice chooses to start with the assignment “proclaim the good news to the poor.” Now the writer may ask, “What exactly does this mean to me?”

Let’s say she’s writing a novel. In the context of a novel proclaim could mean present by example in the life of a character. The content of the good news she proclaims could effect a change for the better in the character’s actions, situation, or attitude. Since the good news as a whole is way too broad of a theme for a single novel, this writer will need to ask herself exactly what element of the good news she feels most passionate about. Maybe she deeply values freedom. Perhaps freedom from fear, or greed, or lust, or vanity.

Basic knowledge about her novel’s main character and the good news she means to present can give her what is commonly called a story arc.

The story arc in the film Tender Mercies: Mac is a country singer whose life has fallen into ruins on account of guilt and alcohol. Then a woman’s love and faith help deliver him from overpowering guilt. His life rises out of the ruins. Here the good news of freedom from guilt is proclaimed in a simple story so well done it won five Oscars.

Suppose our writer wants to proclaim a piece of good news that Jesus offered during his Sermon on the Mount: the merciful are blessed because they will receive mercy. Say a character’s conflict is that she suffers under an abusive husband. Maybe she flees to protect herself and her children. Now the writer could imagine a dozen ways the character and her kids might get blessed with mercy. As soon as she picks one way (or more), she has a story arc.

Warning: the story arc isn’t a roadmap. It’s more of a compass, to consult when lost or unsure of the direction.

When a good ballplayer steps up to bat, she quits thinking about her swing and just swings. Likewise, a good writer stashes analysis and preconceptions in the back of her mind, then lets go and lets the story take on a life of its own.