From the Publisher’s Desk

Thoughts on the industry, storytelling, and book and film releases

Stories Change the World

David White, Publisher

At WhiteFire we believe that stories change the world.  It’s a bit of a foregone conclusion from our point of view – one that we’re entirely sold out to.  But because its important to understand why a thing is (or, some would say, because I tend to overthink things) I found myself wondering why stories change the world.

But why isn’t really the right question, is it? It really does seem obvious that we’re creatures of story.  We learn things better when they’re told in that form, and we’ll spend endless hours listening, watching, reading, and telling them. 

Maybe the right question is how do stories change the world?  That question naturally leads us in two different directions, depending on how you interpret the word how.  (Has the world now lost all meaning for you?)

It breaks down like this.  One question means “What are the methods by which stories change the world?”  That one’s pretty technical to me, as a publisher and wannabe storyteller (I’m a complete hack compared with our authors – if you’re just here for this article and what I’m writing, you’re doing it wrong – go over here and check them out).  I tend to think about this a lot.  Previously I wrote on emotionally connecting to the audience, and for one of my next articles I’m considering writing on character driven stories and why I think they’re so powerful.  But that’s still not the how I want to focus on this week.

The how I want to talk about is “In what way do you want to change, or at least influence, the world?”

That one’s much more fun, right?

So how to answer? 

For the better.

So how do we go about doing that?  It turns out that this is a very hard question, especially in the Christian space or even just from a Christian point of view.  Even if you’re not coming at story from that angle, it’s still an important question.  If we really believe that, (1.) Stories have a profound effect on society, and (2.) that we’re, in some way, accountable for the ways we’re changing the world, then we’re responsible for making sure the end result is positive.

One thing we do as Christian writers/editors/publishers/producers is talk about not doing harm to the audience.  This isn’t necessarily the same thing, though, as a positive end result, and it’s a massive question for me.  And I think its also the wrong one.  I, personally, think that doing harm is absolutely fine sometimes. You have to break your audience to change them (I personally felt harmed seeing the movie Unplanned, but I hope that that harm was good and necessary).

So, I’m OK with harming the audience – if it’s for the right purpose and done in the right way.  Another argument that gets thrown around a lot is that it “damages our witness.”  This one feels like nails on a chalkboard just to type, it bothers me so much.  What kind of things damage our witness?  Drinking?  Smoking?  Infidelity?  How about lying, stealing, cheating?  What do we call those things?  Right – sinning.  It’s a strange thing that we’re afraid to portray those things to the outside world.  Guess what – they know Christians sin.  They’re not surprised.  What they find foolish is that they don’t understand (1.) Why we view certain things as sin and (2.) Why we care to cover it up. 

On number 2 I agree with them wholeheartedly.  In a previous post we were talking about making characters relatable to the outside world?  One of the things I listed was struggle.  There are things we all struggle with.  One of the powerful tools of Christian storytelling is having those outside the church see us struggle with things they don’t.  It makes them curious, and we become a puzzle they have to figure out.  This can play out over and over and in a multitude of different ways.  Embrace the dissonance. 

But as Christian storytellers, we do take things out, right?  Language.  Sex.  Stuff like that.  Why?  Should we put it back in because its true?  After all, Christians do swear and have sex (sometimes with people other than their spouse!).  There’s an argument to be made that we should show this sin in all its disgusting, broken, heartbreaking mess.  It’s an argument I’m tempted by.  But I always ask myself two questions – and they aren’t “does it do harm” or “does it damage my witness.” 

Instead I ask why I’m doing something.  Is it for shock value?  If so, then is there a better way?  I really don’t want to emotionally counterfeit the audience.  Can I make the audience dread the sin?  If they don’t want it and it happens anyway, then that affects them deep down.  I also try to use the most powerful tool in a storyteller’s tool bag – the audience’s own imagination.  If I can get them to wonder and imagine the most horrible things, then I’ve connected them emotionally to the characters.  And if I can change the characters (convincingly) through the story, then I have a chance to also change the audience. 

There, see, isn’t that better than not doing harm or worrying about my reputation?  Also, you can’t hurt Jesus’ reputation.  He hung out with sinners and was crucified as a criminal, and He’s doing ok.  Remember, though, that if you open someone’s heart emotionally, you do have a responsibility to help them close it again.  Healing and catharsis play key roles in stories changing the world for the better.

Which brings me back to the first question once again.  How do stories change the world?  One really powerful way is to open people up emotionally and then leave them alone.  This is something that has become quite popular in the post-modern world – tearing something down for the sake of tearing it down and replacing it with nothing.  I believe that this is one of the sins of storytelling that we really need to avoid.  This is a question of real, true harm.  If you break someone emotionally, you have a responsibility to put them back together. 

Like with everything else, though, there are exceptions to the rule.  One such example is Bach’s St Matthew Passion.  It’s traditionally performed on Good Friday, lasts for hours, and is designed to break down the listeners.  It ends, unfinished and unresolved, with Christs death.  It’s a breaking down without a building up.  The audience is left to go home and meditate on what they experienced.  Bach doesn’t try to build them back up again.  That’s not his job.  But they will be rebuilt – by both the contemplation that Bach and Good Friday calls us to (that is, of Christ’s sacrifice and our redemption) and the soon to come celebration of the Resurrection.

So what happens if (1.) You don’t do it or, worse, (2.) Do it wrong?  If you don’t do it, you’ve opened people up emotionally and they will fill that gap up with whatever they can find.  Sin is usually pretty good at this kind of filling.  There’s a chance that the Church, God, and the Spirit can fill that gap (as is the case with Bach’s Passion).  Always leave room for these to work in whatever story you tell.  If you wrote a story where this can happen, that’s awesome (in the best sense of the word). But don’t count on it.  Remember the old adage – “you break it, you bought it.”  You own you audience’s emotional and spiritual brokenness if you were the cause of it. 

So why do I say doing it wrong is worse than not doing it at all?  When someone has an injury, we work hard to keep the wound clean, right?  But if you don’t do the hard work to clean out a wound and bandage it up tight – if you put a band-aid on a deep, wide cut – the audience might feel better temporarily, but eventually that band-aid comes of, the wound reopens, and they don’t trust the band-aid anymore.  And what happens to them when they think that the Gospel message is just a band-aid?  They don’t trust it. 

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard a message preached, or a story told, and I was caught up in the flow of the argument.  It seemed true.  But the more I thought about it, the less true it rang.  The more flaws I found.  Even if that message ended in the right place, but got there through bad, untrue reasoning, I found I didn’t trust the destination.  This is another kind of Counterfeiting.  Where we give the real thing, but we do it in a way that makes the audience doubt it. 

If you put your faith in something that lets you down or comes off as false, you’re much less likely to believe it later.

Christian storytelling is a multifaceted exercise in spiritual warfare.

And so, as storytellers, it isn’t just important that we open our audience’s heart—we have a responsibility to heal it again. Not just to slap a bandage on it, but to offer genuine, authentic truth. This is how we change the world…for the better. Doing ultimate good, even if it causes temporary emotional harm.

(This is the opinion of the author – it doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinion of WhiteFire Publishing or any of its authors)

Speaking Foolishness

David White, Publisher

In the circles of Christian art (books, film, music, even visual arts), we often hear talk about the purpose of our work. Of how to make the end result positive. But what, exactly, does that mean?  We tend to answer with things like “to make sure God/Christ is glorified” through our art.  That’s a bit of a difficult standard, really, when you think about it.  If the things of God are foolishness to those outside the church, then glorifying God in a godly way isn’t going to connect with the outside audience in a traditional way.  Meaning that logical arguments for the Gospel message don’t make sense (all the time—there are of course, exceptions), and worldly appeals to the gospel risk damaging the message itself.  You also can’t connect with the outside audience in the same way that you would with the church/Christian audience.  We understand things completely differently.

What that means, to me at least, is that we have to be aware that we’re speaking foolishness to the outside world.  I know that scares some people. They want a “clear presentation of the Gospel message.”  But as storytellers it ought to thrill us.  Confusion and wonder are awesome tools in our tool bag (as long as you’re being clear in the confusion you’re using – confused yet?)  There are cases of truly bad storytelling where confusion brings the audience out of the story, but when done well it makes the audience wonder why a character did/said a thing. 

So, confusion of the outside audience is a powerful tool.  A great example of this doesn’t come from storytelling, but it is a great story.  In the Roman era unwanted children were left exposed outside the city gates.  When Christians came along and collected up these children and raised them at great expense to themselves, it made all of Roman society stand up and ask, “Why would they do this?”  They’re confused – what the church did looked like foolishness to them.  And then they were given an answer – because all life is sacred.  Again, the answer to them was foolishness.  Obviously, all life isn’t sacred.  So the church had to keep playing the fool while showing the heart of the church and the Gospel message.  And, so, while the ideas like Grace and Sacrifice (particularly for things lacking perceived nobility) looked to the Romans like foolishness it was the Christian’s passion that intrigued them.  That passionate foolishness made the Romans wonder and that wonder brought many to Christ. That Church embraced the position of fool for Christ. 

That’s one part of telling stories, from the Christian prospective, that changes the world.  But playing the fool is just the catalyst in telling a good story.  So what’s next?

We’ve now built up the Christian, from the POV of the world, as the fool.  Now we need to show the world, not that they aren’t foolish (that’s just foolishness), but that, in many if not most ways, Christians aren’t that different from everyone else.  We need to eat.  We struggle.   We love.  The human condition is universal.  Now you’ve established trust.  And created more wonder—this time in other characters.  They ask, “Why would this person who’s like me behave in this strange way?”  Then they also start to wonder, Why do I behave in the way I do? 

As a storyteller if you can get your characters to ask this question believably, you’re well on your way to changing your audience.  If you’ve gotten them to connect with your characters, they’ll also start wondering along with them.  Now here’s the hard part—don’t give them easy answers.  Ever.  Because there aren’t any.  I know I hear you saying things like “Christ’s gift is free” and “His burden is light,” but remember while its certainly true it’s also foolishness.  Remember we’re also to be slaves to Christ.  When you tell me how being a slave is easy, then I (and the world) will agree with you.  Until then remember that there are lots of reasons not to be a Christian and, frankly, not many good ones by earthly logic.  It’s much easier to drive down a wide road than a narrow one (if you’ve ever driven in parts of England or Ireland, you know what I’m talking about).

So you can’t give them easy answers.  That’s great, because your audience doesn’t want them!  You’ve brought the audience on quite a journey so far—from being confused about why your characters are foolish, to realizing that your characters are like them, to wondering why they are the way they are. Now you need to provide them with real substantial motivation for why they should change. 

And at that point, you’re kind of on your own.  I’m not trying to give you a formula for writing a Christian Story (I really hope there isn’t one). This is where you decide how your story can be the vehicle for delivering that essential truth: that the things of God are foolishness to us…but that His foolishness is wiser than our own wisdom. 

(This is the opinion of the author – it doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinion of WhiteFire Publishing or any of its authors)

Unplanned (Movie Review)

David White, Publisher

I got to see an early screening of Unplanned.  I was prepared to be shocked.  That was, after all, what all the hype was about.  But shock isn’t what I got.  I got dread. 

I was expecting to be told what was happening – to watch the character develop and culminate in her seeing the abortion of a child on a monitor. 

I was wrong. 

The best thing the filmmakers have done is set us up knowing that this scene was in the film.  (I hope in the home video versions they have a warning at the beginning to set it up.)  I was expecting it to be toward the end.  I was expecting to follow Abby through her journey to that moment and be forever changed.  But Abby’s story wasn’t the one that mattered. Our story – the audience’s – was. 

So we start with that scene.  With no time to prepare yourself with story or character development.  Boy, does that front-load the dread.  The whole scene is set up in such a way as to build this tension, and it doesn’t’ stop.  From there on everything in the film is predicated on this scene.  Everything you see – everything you feel.

The writers (I believe Abby herself wrote the basic form in her book by the same name) added every scene to keep up this audience reaction.  By skipping around in time a bit and telling the end first, then Abby’s story, we’re constantly in wonder about how she got there  and in dread because we know its not over.

When I’ve told people about this film, I’ve described it this way: “It’s one of the worst things I’ve seen – you should see it.”

Both are true.  I believe that the reaction that the writers were looking to evoke was disgust and sadness at the abortion industry.  I think they nailed it – in that it’s truly terrible,in the most classic sense of the word.  Maybe that’s what I meant when I say “worst.”

Interestingly, at the same time and by starting the story where they do, they manage not to make us hate Abby.  We get to experience the dread with her.  We then get to experience her life.  It makes us empathize with people like her – those that have had abortions and (at least some) of the people who work in the clinics.  We’re on their side.

At least for a while.  We do get a hint of darkness in Abby, but I think we need this too.  The message is “if you don’t turn away from evil, this is what it makes you.”  Abby doesn’t like what she’s becoming.  It gives the audience a choice – asks us a question. “Is this who we want to be?”  Her answer is complicated and takes some time. 

And I think that all these things add up to a truly authentic story.  Does it matter that it’s a true story – that it really happened?  I don’t know.  It takes some of the sting of the counterfeit away, knowing its true.  If it was pure fiction, I suppose it could be dismissed.  Regardless, the storytelling principles remain the same.  They could have told the same, true story in a different way and still counterfeited us, the audience.  They didn’t.  I’m thankful for it. 

PS

I’m still troubled by the question of who should see this.  I know that most adults should be able to handle it.  But when you’re messing with the audience emotions, you’re playing with fire.  I’m further hindered by my own emotional reaction. 

Should my 13-year-old daughter see it?  I don’t think so.  Maybe that’s me being over protective. 

But again, I don’t think so.  Do I want to fill her with that kind of dread?  In the end, the story’s one of redemption and light, and I don’t think you can have that without some element of sin and death.  I’d rather fill her with compassion.  Compassion for those who have experienced things like Abby did – for the children lost.

But the overwhelming emotion the audience feels is pain, sadness and dread.  Even the ending – even knowing it in advance – is tinged with just a bit of that dread and thinking, “Maybe this doesn’t go so well after all.”

So even with all the complaints about the MPAA’s R rating, I think they did us a service (and not just for the film’s PR).  This is something we need to think about before going to see it.  To know it’s going to affect us.  If that rating had been PG-13, a lot of people would have gone without thinking about it, and this is a film deserving of consideration both before and after viewing. 

So use your judgement.  I stand by my statement (with some small corrections): “This is a terrible film.  Everyone should probably see it.”

This review was original published with the article Emotional Counterfeiting click here to read the whole article.

(This is the opinion of the author – it doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinion of WhiteFire Publishing or any of its authors)

Emotional Counterfeiting

David White, Publisher

Why do some things “land” emotionally and others fall flat?  So often we hear about our culture being desensitized to many things.  Violence, language, sex.  The list goes on.  I’m convinced that’s true.  But there are other times where even the most desensitized to things are affected profoundly, and I struggle to understand why. 

Was that scene more shocking than another?  Not necessarily. 

In looking at what makes a story “bad” (meaning it doesn’t feel “true”) I’m starting to believe that some storytellers have spent their time giving us counterfeits rather than the real thing.  As writers we know what emotion we want our audience to have at a particular moment so we give them something to evoke that feeling.  But did we give them the real thing? 

I feel like we get this often when it comes to good things.  We replace joy with happiness.  Its not necessarily a counterfeit, but it’s maybe not the emotion we were looking to evoke, and it doesn’t seem quite right. 

I think the same is true for all these “bad” things.  Lots of storytellers use violence and language for their shock value.  Counterfeits work great here since your goal isn’t a deep emotional resonance.  Counterfeits tell your audience how to feel – they don’t encourage them to feel it with the characters.

A wise piece of advice was given when it came to audience interaction said that the audience doesn’t need to know (what’s happening, how to feel etc.,) it needs to wonder.  Similarly, I was also once told, in regard to suspense stories/scenes, that it wasn’t about shock but rather about dread.

Counterfeits tell us what we need to know and shock us.  They don’t fill us with wonder and dread.  That’s why they’re counterfeit. They take away our reactions as an audience.

While we are becoming (and largely have become) desensitized to devices like shock, I wonder if it’s even possible to become desensitized to wonder and dread.  Those live inside us.  They’re natural.  We can’t live without them.   This also means that if you want to evoke an emotional reaction, you don’t have to shock your audience.  You have to get them to feel it (along with the characters).  If you have a character death in your story and you want to shock the audience with it, take a step back.  Is that the reaction you want?  Let them decide how to react.  Don’t worry about showing them something they’ve never seen before (at this point we’ve seen it all, right?) let the audience’s imagination run wild.  They’ll make something up that’s even more shocking than you could imagine.

And this way, above all, is how you affect your audience deeply.  If you want to change them, let them participate in the process.  I’d also like to stress that when I say “counterfeit,” I don’t mean that something isn’t true to life.  Sometimes things that are true to life fall flat in storytelling – I don’t know why.  What affects us while we’re engaged in a story is fundamentally different than how it affects us when we’re living our story.  Don’t confuse realism with authenticity.  What matters is that the emotions are real.

If you want to change the world through story, if you want to “land” that emotional scene, don’t try to shock us.  Make us wonder.  Make us dread.  Let our imaginations do the work for you.  The audience is your partner.  Don’t give us counterfeits.  Only the real thing can effect great change.

BONUS:

I started thinking about this topic for two reasons.  The first was reading a blog post about becoming desensitized by media.  I absolutely think this is happening.  We can talk about news and real-life events being shown to us on a daily basis.  I think that’s an important discussion.

But so often I think that our reaction – particularly in fiction, television, and movies – is “meh.” Not because we’re desensitized, but because we’ve seen it before and it didn’t affect us.  It didn’t make us wonder or dread or even try to use our imaginations.  I literally couldn’t be bothered

Then I saw the new movie (or should I say film?) Unplanned.  I was prepared to be shocked.  That was, after all, what all the hype was about.  But shock isn’t what I got.  I got dread. 

I was expecting to be told what was happening – to watch the character develop and culminate in her seeing the abortion of a child on a monitor. 

I was wrong. 

The best thing the filmmakers have done is set us up knowing that this scene was in the film.  (I hope in the home video versions they have a warning at the beginning to set it up.)  I was expecting it to be toward the end.  I was expecting to follow Abby through her journey to that moment and be forever changed.  But Abby’s story wasn’t the one that mattered. Our story – the audience’s – was. 

So we start with that scene.  With no time to prepare yourself with story or character development.  Boy, does that front-load the dread.  The whole scene is set up in such a way as to build this tension, and it doesn’t’ stop.  From there on everything in the film is predicated on this scene.  Everything you see – everything you feel.

The writers (I believe Abby herself wrote the basic form in her book by the same name) added every scene to keep up this audience reaction.  By skipping around in time a bit and telling the end first, then Abby’s story, we’re constantly in wonder about how she got there  and in dread because we know its not over.

When I’ve told people about this film, I’ve described it this way: “It’s one of the worst things I’ve seen – you should see it.”

Both are true.  I believe that the reaction that the writers were looking to evoke was disgust and sadness at the abortion industry.  I think they nailed it – in that it’s truly terrible,in the most classic sense of the word.  Maybe that’s what I meant when I say “worst.”

Interestingly, at the same time and by starting the story where they do, they manage not to make us hate Abby.  We get to experience the dread with her.  We then get to experience her life.  It makes us empathize with people like her – those that have had abortions and (at least some) of the people who work in the clinics.  We’re on their side.

At least for a while.  We do get a hint of darkness in Abby, but I think we need this too.  The message is “if you don’t turn away from evil, this is what it makes you.”  Abby doesn’t like what she’s becoming.  It gives the audience a choice – asks us a question. “Is this who we want to be?”  Her answer is complicated and takes some time. 

And I think that all these things add up to a truly authentic story.  Does it matter that it’s a true story – that it really happened?  I don’t know.  It takes some of the sting of the counterfeit away, knowing its true.  If it was pure fiction, I suppose it could be dismissed.  Regardless, the storytelling principles remain the same.  They could have told the same, true story in a different way and still counterfeited us, the audience.  They didn’t.  I’m thankful for it. 

PS

I’m still troubled by the question of who should see this.  I know that most adults should be able to handle it.  But when you’re messing with the audience emotions, you’re playing with fire.  I’m further hindered by my own emotional reaction. 

Should my 13-year-old daughter see it?  I don’t think so.  Maybe that’s me being over protective. 

But again, I don’t think so.  Do I want to fill her with that kind of dread?  In the end, the story’s one of redemption and light, and I don’t think you can have that without some element of sin and death.  I’d rather fill her with compassion.  Compassion for those who have experienced things like Abby did – for the children lost.

But the overwhelming emotion the audience feels is pain, sadness and dread.  Even the ending – even knowing it in advance – is tinged with just a bit of that dread and thinking, “Maybe this doesn’t go so well after all.”

So even with all the complaints about the MPAA’s R rating, I think they did us a service (and not just for the film’s PR).  This is something we need to think about before going to see it.  To know it’s going to affect us.  If that rating had been PG-13, a lot of people would have gone without thinking about it, and this is a film deserving of consideration both before and after viewing. 

So use your judgement.  I stand by my statement (with some small corrections): “This is a terrible film.  Everyone should probably see it.”

(This is the opinion of the author – it doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinion of WhiteFire Publishing or any of its authors)