During 2013, dozens of talented writers are joining me to cheer you on in your storytelling. These guest-writers will share a few helpful words with you right here every Tuesday night, to encourage you as you #TellHisStory. (Come back after midnight to link up your story by clicking here.) And now, I’m delighted to introduce you to a mentor and former colleague at Dordt College: Mr. Jim Schaap.
A Stranger Comes to Town
What he said has stuck with the writer in me for 35 years. What the famed literary man said explained a great deal about the nature of plot, which is, of course, essential to story. What he said was that there really were only two kinds of plots, and those two could be summarized easily.
First, he said, there is the story he called “a man goes on a trip.” What characterizes that kind of story, he said, is an active protagonist, someone who really wants something; and the example he used was this: some husband and wife decide to hang up their lives in Kansas City (or wherever) and light out for Alaska, where they begin again, start a new life on a small farm, say.
You don’t have to like cows or hay bales to like that story because the protagonist acts, and his or her acting is what we want to read or watch. In this story the central character does things. We love that.
The other story Mr. John Gardner called “a stranger comes to town.” What characterizes that story, he said, was a protagonist–“the town”–that is acted upon. In this story, the protagonist is passive, is charmed or changed or entertained by some far bigger force. Readers much, much, much prefer the former to the latter, Gardner said, because they much prefer protagonists who want something and work to get it.
The first story is the essence of most great literature, he said; but most young writers write the second type, he said, “a stranger comes to visit.”
He was lecturing at Bread Loaf Writers Conference, the granddaddy of all writing conferences. I was in the crowd, I was a young writer, and he was John Gardner.
For all these years I’ve been thinking he’s right. Still do.
But what has always bugged me is that the greatest story ever told is the second type–a stranger, Jesus Christ, comes into our lives. It’s fair to say for some of us at least, that even though we really didn’t pursue him, he came anyway; and his coming has made all the difference. He bought us with his blood, we were quite passive about it, and it’s his action that saved us.
That he did doesn’t bug me at all, but that his story is somehow second-rate does and always has.
But yesterday, I was reading Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years again, that tough chapter when he just about buckles under in a tide of darkness thrown up by a broken relationship, that chapter where Job comes in to help him bear his own load of sadness and grief. Miller says that long passage at the end of the book the Job, the passage where God almost unfeelingly says to Job that he really shouldn’t think all of this–all of this earth, all of its suffering and grief and happiness and joy, that all of this story, this pageant of humanity around him–is really about him, about Job. Because it’s not. “I know what I’m doing,” Miller writes, as if God is talking, “and it’s not about you.”
Right then, sitting in an office waiting for class, it suddenly struck me that this old dilemma of mine about the greatest story ever told and Gardner’s claims wasn’t a dilemma at all.
The story we celebrate, the story that makes us wince, the story that makes some draw whips and many millions fast, is not my story, nor is it ours. It’s his. Jesus Christ may well be the stranger who comes to town, but, good Lord!, He is now and forever, the man who goes on a trip.
Here’s where I’ve always been wrong. I thought it was my story. And it is.
But what I missed is that it’s really his.
James Calvin Schaap is the award-winning author of nearly two dozen books. He has been an English professor at Dordt College for many years. He is a member of the Chrysostom Society and blogs at “Stuff in the Basement.”